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U.S. Prison Populations Drifting Down

Hammered by budget shortfalls and seeing declines in crime rates, 20 states have reduced inmate counts.
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For the first time in decades, a number of states are reporting a decline in their prison populations. Figures just released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics for 2008 indicate that 20 states now house fewer prisoners.

"We're seeing several trends come together here," says Marc Mauer, executive director of the advocacy group The Sentencing Project. "Crime rates have been declining for 15 years, and the fiscal crisis every state is facing has forced them to confront the massive costs of prisons. We're past the point where you can build prison cells and college classrooms. You have to make a choice, so governors now have to reduce the prison population in ways that don't compromise safety."

The U.S. rate of incarceration — 754 per 100,000 — is still the highest in the world, about five to eight times that of other industrialized nations. But the BJS findings note that there has been a 9 percent decline in African-American incarceration between 2000 and 2008, due to a decline in persons sent to jail for drug offenses.

In fact, states hit hard by the spiraling cost of incarceration are looking for ways to keep offenders — particularly drug offenders — out of the slammer. Many are reassessing their sentencing policies and parole revocation issues and supporting re-entry programs in an attempt to cut down on the prison population. Last month, for example, Rhode Island passed legislation that will limit mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses.

What this all means is that the era of draconian drug-sentencing policies, jump-started by New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller in the 1970s, may finally be coming to an end.

"We're already starting to see that somehow," Maurer says. "They have scaled back the laws in New York and Michigan, and in Congress there is legislation under consideration regarding the crack cocaine sentencing laws. There is a broad re-examination of the policies of the '70s and '80s, particularly in regard to the drug sentencing laws."

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