Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Reversing overincarceration trends: A national perspective

A reversal of trends in Texas, reports the Pew Center on the States, contributed to the first recorded decline in the national prison population since The Godfather won Oscar for best picture. Here's why:
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.


Anonymous said...

There are two sides to that argument. Here is the other:

Anonymous said...

Budgets and liberal ideologies are driving this movement. Let's reduce the budget, not the number of victims!!(sarcasm) Why don't offenders change their behavior?.......because they don't want to!! Let's stop with all the stupid meetings and how the system is failing the offenders. The system is not broke.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

12:46, that's quite a conspiracy theory they've got there - one that could be equally applied to proponents of neoconservative "tuff on crime" mavens at the Manhattan Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, etc., funded through the Olin, Scaife, Bradley foundations and a similar network of related donors.

The problem with your interpretation in this instance: Do you honestly believe the GOP Legislature and Governor Perry are part of some vast left wing conspiracy run out of New York City foundation offices? Looking at Texas' experience, it makes no sense. The most important think tank on incarceration here has been the Texas Public Policy Foundation funded by religious right mega-donor Jim Leininger - historically one of Rick Perry's biggest supporters. The movement in Texas was a) home grown and b) bipartisan.

2:31: You're partially right; budgets are certainly part of it. But the focus of stronger probation, progressive sanctions, etc., is all about reducing the number of victims by focusing resources on what works and defunding ineffective overincarceration schemes that aren't supported by evidence-based research. For low-risk offenders and many higher-risk ones after they've succeeded on supervision for a while, additional punitive measures become counterproductive and create more victims. In that regard, the system IS broken and too reliant on incarceration. Look at the steep curve after '72 on the chart on the first page of the report, with incarceration rates far outstripping population growth for the first time in the nation's history.

Anonymous said...

We are clearly moving in a direction where incarceration is discouraged; however, that is primarily money driven. Ten years from now there will be another outcry for the 'get tuff' approach.
The conservatives such as Mark Levin at the TPPF only look at the angle from a fiscal perspective. The TPPF is far from conservative on criminal justice issues and I seriously doubt their donors are aware of their 'set'em free and save a buck' philosophy.

Anonymous said...

So the conservative foundations views are based on conspiracy and the liberal foundations views are based on data and research? Why am I not surprised that a former ACLU guy would see it that way....

Gritsforbreakfast said...

No, 5:41, I'm suggesting the arguments from both sides should be evaluated on their merits, not disparaged based on who funded them as the link 12:46 provided attempts to do.

Also, 5:27 - I'm quite sure TPPF's donors, including Leininger, know of their work. They promote it widely in their materials and it was a big part of their recent statewide conference, which was filled with GOP officials of all stripes.

TPPF doesn't just look at this from the fiscal angle. They're refreshingly actually for small government on criminal justice, which is a concept Republicans have gotten away from in recent years. They also do a lot of good work on the pro-victim front through a restorative justice lens.

Anonymous said...

You cannot dismiss the individuals or the foundations that fund the research as insignificant, particularly when those foundations have millions of dollars invested in certain programs that further their cause.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@9:32 - 2 things: A) That's true of every study funded by anyone, but it doesn't discount the arguments made, on either side, and B) I see this as different than, say, research funded by Big Pharma because they've got a direct profit motive while think tanks like TPPF are advancing ideological views.

The Pew Center on the States funds pretty credible research in my experience. If you have reason to doubt their work - e.g., if you think crime has declined some other year since 1972, you should definitely dispute their conclusions.

Anonymous said...

"If you have reason to doubt their work - e.g., if you think crime has declined some other year since 1972, you should definitely dispute their conclusions."

No where does the article referenced mention a decline in crime, simply a decline in incarceration. HUGE difference!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

'scuse me 10:09, just a brain fart- yes, I meant a decline in *incarceration*. Crime has been declining for almost two decades.

Anonymous said...

Yep, crime has been declining for two decades. Surprisingly, liberals do not contribute the continued decline in crime to the 'get tough on crime approach' of the 90's. Why is that?

sunray's wench said...

Up until the recent global economic crisis, incomes and standards of living were improving. Economics has far greater impact on the levels of crime than the reactions to those who commit crimes. The levels will almost certainly be rising again based on the financial trouble that America has been in over the past couple of years.

Also the types of crimes committed change with economic factors.

A "tuff on crime" approach may have some short term effect on the numbers of criminals on the streets, but it cannot influence human behaviour over a longer period. People make decisions based more on how much they think they need what they want, rather than on how long they might do in prison if they get caught (most criminals do not believe they will get caught in the first place).

Anonymous said...

There is a side to this story that all you fine conservatives don't discuss.All the people that are locked up for drug offences and other petty crimes that the state spends a ton to house every year.Taking up beds that should be filled by child molester's that get probation for thier first offence, when they should get life!How comfortable and safe do you feel about that fact,now that your lockem all up mentality has caused so many loop holes and early release for the ones that really need to be locked up, walk the streets.Aw, but your the man!!

Anonymous said...

Just want to say that I do not agree that crime is declining, but if less persons are being incarerated... I'm not sure. I don't know. I am trying to say that crime in generally as in what is one meaning when they say crime. You know sort of like... the word Crazy. I personal think redefining crazy is way over do. (you going to steal this thought from me?) lol REDEFININGB MORALLY INSANE.
So then criminals in charge of criminals?

I have a few person's on this list of mine.

Peace and Love and warm grits too!


Anonymous said...

Dear Grits, Please assist me, I do not see a trash can near any of my post. I am trying to do the best I can. You states the trash can is near the time/date stamp by our post/comments/replies... If I do not have this information correctly please help a mother out... please Thank You for your time and consideration.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Give me a list of them by email at, both the URL of the article and the date and time of the comment, and I'll delete them.