Prison Counts Decline As States Enact Reforms

The nation's prison population recently declined for the first time in nearly 40 years. View a map and detailed data for your state.
by | February 16, 2012 AT 8:20 PM

A flurry of legislation in recent years has taken aim at reducing growing prison populations, one of states’ most costly endeavors. There’s now evidence their efforts are paying off, with the Bureau of Justice Statistics reporting the nation’s prison population dipped in 2010 – the first annual decline in nearly four decades.

States pursued a range of reforms, from cutting sentences for nonviolent offenders to boosting community supervision programs. Yet most experts are unsure if the reduced prisoner totals signal a permanent shift in how states punish offenders.

“It’s too early to tell if this is a tap on the breaks or a shift in reverse,” said Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Center on the States’ Public Safety Performance Project.

Federal and state authorities accounted for about 1.6 million prisoners at the end of the year -- a drop of less than 1 percent. The decline marked the first annual decrease since 1972.

Half of states reported fewer prisoners under state and federal jurisdiction in 2010, led by California (-6,213) and New York (-2,031). Only Illinois and Texas saw their populations rise by more than 1,000. In all, BJS reported the U.S. prison population declined by 9,228 in its December report, but this will likely change as Georgia’s figures are being revised.

So what happened?

Release rates and length of prison time served remained stable. But a decline in state prison admissions pushed prison totals down, BJS concluded.

Budget deficits prompted several states to consider reforms to control prison populations. Saving money wasn’t the only factor influencing states’ policies, though.

“What’s really driving this is a growing recognition among state policy makers that there are more effective, less expensive ways to handle non-violent offenders,” Gelb said.

Over the past few years, states took a variety of approaches to free up prison beds. Many reforms diverted nonviolent criminals from corrections institutions and trimmed prison stays. Gelb said some states also targeted treatment programs and cognitive behavioral therapies, which have proven successful at helping offenders avoid getting into trouble.

Texas – known for its tough stance on crime – invested $240 million in treatment and diversion programs, and cut probation terms in 2007. The reforms helped to reduce its prisoner count, making the state a model for California and others.

Gelb cited Kentucky, Arkansas, Ohio and North Carolina as states implementing comprehensive corrections legislation in 2011. Other states are mirroring the reforms with their own proposals this year. In Georgia, legislators are considering revising penalties for drug crimes and changing the definition of felony theft.

It’s also important to note that throughout most of the country, violent crime rates have dropped. Data on offenses for state prisoners is unavailable for 2010, but 53 percent of state inmates served sentences for violent crimes in 2009, according to BJS.

The imprisonment rate varies greatly throughout the country, as shown in the map below.

Louisiana is home to the nation’s highest imprisonment rate – by far. About one in every 115 residents was serving more than a yearlong sentence in 2010. Accordingly, the state legislature considered several bills to curb its prison population last year.

Similarly, other southern states report above-average imprisonment rates. Gelb said these states tend to have more violent crime than other regions.

Overall, BJS reports one in every 201 U.S. residents was behind bars serving a sentence of more than a year. When factoring in all forms of correction, about one in 33 U.S. adults was under the supervision of authorities in 2010.

BJS said it tentatively plans to release 2011 data by July. View 2008-2010 figures by selecting a state in the menu below:

Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics