A surprising reversal in America's prison population

The soaring costs of incarceration got even conservatives' attention, leading to new approaches to criminal justice and sentencing.

By Bruce Kennedy Jun 24, 2013 9:06AM

File photo of prison bars (© GeoStock/Photodisc/Getty Images)For the past several decades, and to the dismay of many people, one national sector has seen unprecedented growth: America's prison population. The number of inmates in U.S. federal and state prisons grew sixfold between the 1970s and 2000. State prison populations alone jumped by 700% between 1970 and 2009 after topping 2 million for the first time in 2002.

However, at the end of 2012, the Department of Justice reported that while more than 2.2 million people were incarcerated in local, state or federal prisons -- and 4.8 million more under some from of adult correctional supervision like community service, probation or parole -- the overall number of inmates was declining.

According to The Wall Street Journal, rising costs, lower crime rates, increased budget pressures, and new approaches to corrections and sentencing have finally added up to fewer people behind bars.

Another critical component has been a political shift. Conservative lawmakers, who in the past supported tough crime laws and strict sentencing guidelines, are now spearheading many of the reforms.

The WSJ says the changeover was first noticed in Texas in 2007, when GOP officials there "balked at the need to build three new prisons to house an anticipated 17,000 more prisoners by 2012."

"They decided instead to revamp the state's probation system," the paper noted, "and boost funding for addiction treatment and rehabilitation by $241 million." Since 2008, the Texas state prison population has declined by nearly 6,000 inmates, leading Texas to shut down a prison in 2011 for the first time in state history.

In Ohio, Republican state Sen. Bill Seit says his views on prison time began to change several years ago when his county, which includes Cincinnati, voted down funding to construct a new jail. "It became all the clearer to me how we pass tough sentencing laws with a blind eye to the fiscal impacts," he told the paper.

Georgia was recently spending $3 million a day to keep one out of every 13 state residents behind bars, on probation or on parole. But new laws there have helped move nonviolent criminals into non-prison situations, such as rehabilitation programs. The changes have also given state judges wider leeway in sentencing and in expanding so-called accountability courts.

One Georgia drug court, for example, found its sentencing program of mandatory employment or schooling, group counseling and frequent drug tests costs the state $13 a day per person -- compared with the $50 a day needed to feed and house a state prisoner. And the recidivism rate for the drug-court "graduates" is just 8%.

That's some much-needed good news in a category that until recently has had very little.

More on moneyNOW

Jun 24, 2013 10:17AM
Good to see the "tough on crime" conservative lawmakers didn't care about ruining people's lives over non-violent drug offenses until it started costing too much.
Jun 24, 2013 12:10PM
It is shrinking because fewer criminals are being arrested and tried. The courts are constantly and consistently raising the bar on what constitutes a crime against society. For the record, one woman had 39 DUI's and was not in jail. A man convicted of murder got 4 years on a plea. 4 years! Many of these "get out of jail free" cases are occurring today, as states do not want to spend money on trials so crime runs rampant, but they say crime is not doing that because of fewer criminal trials. Uh, see any disconnect there? All gov't stats on crime are phony and self -serving.
Jun 24, 2013 1:47PM
Crimes against people should serve longer sentences and crime against nobody should serve shorter sentences.  Mandatory drug sentences fill up our prisons when they mostly are not hurting anybody but themselves.  Why should we let robbers and rapists out in two years so that a drug offender can sit in prison for six years?  That's what is wrong with our prison and justice system.  We aren't keeping drugs off the street, we are just taking up all of the room in prison with people caught with pot and meth.  We could get addicted people treatment for the money we are spending on incarceration.  Why are we charging addicted persons for medical treatment?  It should be free?  Instead of helping them, the only thing that is free is prison.
Jun 24, 2013 9:50AM
well it explains why the markets is tumbling today,, they ended up on wall street
Jun 24, 2013 1:54PM
The prison-industrial complex would much rather lock up people for non-violent or victimless crimes.  They are much easier to handle than the rapists, murderers, and violent criminals that they would have to deal with.  Companies like Wackenhut and the Corrections Corporation of America want a 90% occupancy rate for most prisons so they lobby the legislators to increase long prison terms for non-violent, drug,  and civil crimes - all the while giving reduced sentences to violent offenders.  Thanks for making the country safer, prison-industrial complex....hopefully you live behind a fortified gate because otherwise, you'll be next to be victimized.
Jun 24, 2013 10:14AM
maybe we need to go back to the movie "The Dirty Dozen" but instead of a dozen create an entire battalion made up of battle-trained inmates and start using them as point men in our nastiest conflicts. For every year served, you get 3 years knocked off your sentence until you are free, if you live. If they knew what it meant to earn their citizenship instead of hurt citizens, maybe they would change. There are too many worthless teens and young adults out there knocking over banks and fast food restaurants for chump change for drug money for us to declare American education a success. Democracy doesn't work for some people. Without war, we no longer have Darwin's natural theory and people who are so dumb they should be dead are instead living off the fringe of society harming others. It makes no sense to incarcerate someone, feed them, watch them develop muscles from working out all day then do nothing to educate them, train them or encourage them to return to society. We need a new plan.
Jun 24, 2013 2:51PM
This has long been the stumbling block in the legalization of Marijuana. Prison is a business and like all businesses they need to grow. If you decriminalize pot, then what are we going to do with all the empty beds at the Dept. of Corrections? Its shameful how the Politicians play with the lives of innocent people.
Jun 24, 2013 1:59PM
There are any number of resources that can be used to hold offenders accountable for what they do without resorting to incarcerating those same offenders. Technology can play a huge part in this. Electronic monitoring and electronic monitoring with a GPS component are just a couple of examples. By using technology, the criminal justice system can allow non-violent offenders to keep their jobs (yes, some of them do have jobs), support their families and pay at least some part of the monitoring costs. This is a much better alternative than costly incarceration, the loss of productivity and the breaking up of families.
Jun 24, 2013 10:54AM
So this is how LarDirtyDogDownUnderagayman got out of prison!
Jun 24, 2013 2:21PM
Lower crime rate? Yea right, what happen there is that politics got involved and Cop is offraid to arrest anyone becuase the might get Lawsuit  what happened to the Good old days?
Jun 24, 2013 3:39PM
The criminal "justice" system is a joke at best. You want the cost to go down, use the Judge Roy Bean system. If he found you guilty it was simple, empty your pockets, strip your boots, and hang your sorry azz. I think this would work really well for violent offenders, it did back then. As for non-violent crimes, IE: pot smokers, legalize it and , wha-la, problem solved. You could use the tax $$ from the pot to build a few really fancy scaffolds....
Jun 24, 2013 3:06PM

This is just corporate propaganda at its best. The for profit prison system does not want the publicity it has been getting by locking non-violent prisoners for profit, like marijuana possesion.

Jun 24, 2013 1:08PM
Drug recidivism rate is only 8%! Beachfront property in freeway-close Kansas, cheap! I've been around too long to believe this vacacaca.
Jun 24, 2013 12:19PM
How about we allow non violent criminals pay to have their sentences decreased? Not totally eliminated but up to 50% less time if they pay a massive fine.
Jun 24, 2013 4:11PM
I don't believe this for a second. The prison system is a big business for the scammers with their hands in the taxpayer fed cookie jar.
Jun 24, 2013 2:03PM

4K is working? No, no, too early to tell.


Did the abortion numbers go up about twenty years ago, again, leading to another long term decline in future unwanted, badly raised little human children turned criminals thereby depressing the need for prisons in the here and now?



Jun 24, 2013 3:40PM
The only time that we will ever see a decrease in the prison population....will be when the overall population starts to decrease. Which shouldn't be too long since more than 1 out of 3 people have cancer and our government is being manipulated everyday by the billion and trillion dollar companies to go to war. So just hold on....pretty soon this article may be right.....just not for the reasons they're stating of course.
Jun 24, 2013 10:21PM

Let's stop the war on drugs program and legalize all but the most potent drugs . The money saved on jails and the taxes collected on these drugs could then be used for treatment programs for the hardcore addicts. An intense anti-drug use program could be started in our schools to educate our children about all the bad aspects of drug use. These programs could be required  from kindergarten through high school. There will always be those who will abuse drugs, but putting them in jail isn't working and neither is trying to stop the illegal sale and importation of drugs. Why not re-direct that money for our own positive uses like better schools, roads, bridges, airports?

Jun 25, 2013 12:34PM

Areas with concealed carry (cc) laws that favor law abiding citizens are seeing lower crime rates.


Areas with cc laws that don't favor law abiding citizens are still crime cesspools.


Crook County Illinois denies it's citizens their 2nd ammendment rights. Any woman who has been victimized/raped in Crook County in the last 20 years should sue the pants off Crook County and former Chicago mayor, Richie "it's not my fault I'm a crook" Daley.


Concealed carry saves THOUSANDS OF LIVES a year, and is an effective deterrent in reducing crime. Politicians of Illinois do your job and  let the good citizens of Illinois protect themselves and their families.


But on the other hand, if the crime rate fell in Crook County, you might lose some votes from the reduction in police and prison guard union members. Hard decision, save lives and lose votes, or keep the votes and lose a few thousand lives. Silly me, what's a few thousand lives in the grand quest of maintaining the Chicago/Illinois Democratic Machine. 
















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