Prison Population in US is Leveling Off

Associated Press Writer | AP National, June 9, 2001

ATLANTA, June 8 – After growing explosively for three decades, the nation’s prison population has begun to stabilize, according to new government figures.

For the first time in years, the overcrowding that has plagued state prisons and local jails alike is beginning to ease, as a result of falling crime rates and a decade of new construction.

Through the middle of last year, the number of state prisoners grew by only 1.5 percent, the lowest annual increase in 29 years, according to figures recently compiled by the United States Department of Justice. In the three most populous states, the number of prisoners in California and New York actually fell last year, and the number in Texas grew by only half of 1 percent.

Nine other states – including New Jersey – also reported a decline, the largest number of states to do so in two decades. Connecticut’s prison population grew 1.4 percent.

Government officials and other experts in the field say there are several reasons for the slowing growth, but the most important is that the prison system is finally experiencing the benefits of the decline in crime rates that began in the mid–1990’s.

Before the crime rates fell, many states had begun toughening their criminal justice systems, imposing longer minimum sentences for a wider spectrum of crimes and ending parole. The average sentence increased by 13 percent during the 90’s, and with more prisoners staying behind bars longer, it took several years for the drop in crime to be reflected in the prison population numbers.

“The reason we saw those increasing numbers every year was because of the sentencing reforms undertaken by so many states,” said Allen J. Beck, the chief of corrections statistics for the Justice Department, who compiled the new figures. “In the 90’s, there was a much greater chance that violent offenders would be incarcerated, and would stay longer. But those reforms had their effect, and now we’re finally starting to see the prison population stabilize.”

he drop in crime was not directly related to the increased sentencing; a variety of studies have shown no relationship between the length of sentencing in a state and its crime rate. Rather, criminologists say, many of the tough sentences imposed earlier in the decade began to run their course at the same time as the crime rate continued to decline.

During that same period, many states with corrections systems that became overwhelmed by the new prisoners also began experimenting with alternative sentencing – special drug courts and diversionary programs for drug users that are starting to have an effect on reducing inmate populations. By more closely supervising convicts on parole, states have kept many of them from returning.

“Forty percent of the people walking through our prison doors were parole violators, mostly who had relapsed into drug use,” said Martin F. Horn, who was the secretary of corrections in Pennsylvania for six years until earlier this year.

“So we started a system that put them in an intensive treatment program inside prison for six months, then put them back on the street under close supervision, Mr. Horn said. “Now our prison population has been flat for three years, which we hadn’t seen since before 1980.”

In addition to California, New York and New Jersey, the other states that reported declines in prisoners were Alaska, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island and South Carolina.

State prisoners represent about 60 percent of all people incarcerated in the United States. The growth in the number of jail inmates – usually people held for a year or less, representing 32 percent of those incarcerated – has also been flat in the last two years, which is considered a more direct reflection of the drop in crime.

“Jails are the most immediate beneficiary of the crime decline, because their sentences are shorter,” said Alfred Blumstein, a professor of criminology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, who studies crime statistics. “Typically, at least half the people in jail are awaiting trial, and as the crime rates declined, trials can occur faster.”

But the trend has not held true in the federal prison system, which grew by 11 percent last year, mostly due to mandatory drug sentencing and the federal takeover of prisoners from the District of Columbia. Federal prisons remain considerably more crowded, on average, than state prisons or local jails.

One reason for that is the boom in prison and local jail construction during the 1980’s and 90’s, which doubled the number of state prisons, though it was not matched at the federal level. Between 1990 and 2000, the number of state prisoners nationwide grew by 75 percent, to 1,242,962 from 708,393, corresponding to the rise in drug arrests, more vigilant policing and harsher sentences.

But prison construction in most states has kept pace and often exceeded the increase in prisoners, even though most prisons remain overcrowded. Justice Department figures show that the state prisons were operating at 115 percent of capacity in 1990, and at 109 percent of capacity in 1999, the latest year for which statistics are available.

Similarly, the number of local jail beds almost doubled during the 1990’s, to 677,000. In 1990, jails were operating at 104 percent of capacity, but last year, that number dropped to 92 percent. Mr. Beck said that in the year ending last June, more jail beds were added than jail inmates.

Many states continue to make headlines because of overcrowded prisons and jails, mostly in cases where the state has not built new prisons as fast as elsewhere. New Jersey has the most crowded prison system, according to the Justice Department, at 143 percent of its capacity, and Illinois and Wisconsin are only a few percentage points behind. Other states, including Alabama, have allowed local jails to hold their excess prisoners, resulting in lawsuits over jail conditions and court orders to expand state capacity.

But nationally the crowding is diminishing, and experts predict it will become a much less serious problem in the coming decade as the number of prisoners stabilizes and prisons now under construction open. Several states added so many beds that they have an excess of prison capacity, and Texas and Virginia have made a lucrative business out of leasing their spare prison beds to more crowded states.

Ten percent of the inmates in Virginia’s prisons are from out of state, and the state expects to receive more than $80 million this year for housing them. Several prisoners from Connecticut and New Mexico who were housed at Virginia’s newest “supermax” prisons have filed lawsuits complaining about abusive conditions and racial discrimination at the new buildings, which restrict the movement of prisoners more sharply than in most prisons.

Marc Mauer, deputy director of the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit group that supports prisoners’ rights, said he expected that questions regarding treatment of prisoners at new institutions would eventually overtake crowding as the principal concern of advocates.

“Crowding only tells you whether there are enough beds for all the inmates,” Mr. Mauer said. “It doesn’t tell you how many vocational or treatment programs there are, or what life is like inside the prisons 24 hours a day.”

If the prison population continues to stabilize or diminish, it could have a substantial economic benefit to states and localities. State prisoners now cost an average of $23,000 a year to house, so the 65,810 prisoners added between 1998 and 1999 increased the nation’s prison expenditures by about $1.5 billion. By contrast, the following year, only 18,558 prisoners were added, a difference of more than $1 billion.

But prison–building remains popular with many politicians and voters, and new prisons often provide a boost to rural economies. Few people in the field expect building to stop.

We’re a long way from the point where crime is not a major political issue,” said James Alan Fox, a professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University. “The political agenda is still heavily weighted towards punishment, and many states are much more willing to spend money on prison construction than on new schools.”