Texas: In January 2007, Texas faced a projected prison population increase of up to 17,000 inmates in just five years. Rather than spend nearly $2 billion on new prison construction and operations to accommodate this growth, policy makers reinvested a fraction of this amount ($241 million) in a network of residential and community-based treatment and diversion programs. This has greatly expanded sentencing options for new offenses and sanctioning options for probation violators. Texas also increased its parole grant rate and shortened probation terms. As a result, this strong law-and-order state not only averted the large new prison expenditures but reduced its overall prison population as crime rates declined in the state.Nationally, this was the first time the overall prison population declined since 1972, when there were only 174,379 prisoners in the country, by Pew's count. By contrast, today Texas alone has 155,000 or so locked up in prison and another 70,000+ in county jails. However:
For the first time in nearly 40 years, the number of state prisoners in the United States has declined, according to Prison Count 2010, a new survey by the Pew Center on the States.
As of January 1, 2010, there were 1,403,091 persons under the jurisdiction of state prison authorities, 5,739 (0.4 percent) less than on December 31, 2008. This marks the first year-to-year drop in the nation's state prison population since 1972.
While the overall state prison population dropped, the Pew survey revealed great variation among the states. The population declined in 27 states, with some posting substantial reductions. At the same time, the number of prisoners continued to grow in the other 23 states, several with significant increases.
"After so many years on the rise, any size drop is notable. What's really striking is the tremendous variation among the states," said Adam Gelb, director, Public Safety Performance Project of the Pew Center on the States. "These numbers highlight just how much the decisions by state policy makers impact the size and cost of prison systems."
In absolute numbers, California's state inmate count fell the most, shedding 4,257 prisoners in 2009. This follows a decline of 612 prisoners in 2008. Five other states experienced total reductions of more than 1,000 prisoners: Michigan (3,260), New York (1,699), Maryland (1,315), Texas (1,257) and Mississippi (1,233).
"The decline is happening for several reasons, but an important contributor is that states began to realize there are research-based ways they can cut their prison populations while continuing to protect public safety," said Gelb. "In the past few years, several states have enacted reforms designed to get taxpayers a better return on their public safety dollars."
Some states, however, are going even further:
In proportional terms, the steepest decline occurred in Rhode Island, where the prison population tumbled 9.2 percent. Other states with substantial declines included Michigan (6.7 percent), New Hampshire (6.0 percent), Maryland (5.6 percent) and Mississippi (5.4 percent). Michigan’s contraction follows a three percent drop during 2008.
These data further fuel my belief that Texas could safely reduce its prison population even more aggressively, continuing the welcome reversal of this ignominious, intractable trend.