The Pew Center for the States’ Public Safety Performance Project, had good news in March, with the release of their latest publication,” Prison Count 2010: State Population Declines for the First Time in 38 Years“. Not only are prison populations down .4% from 2008, but prison admissions for new offenses are down for the third year in a row. Of course when one puts this news in perspective, the realities are somewhat less stellar. Prison populations are up over 700% since 1972, while federal prison populations continued to grow, doubling since 1995.
So what does this data really mean. Though the nation’s crime rate has been declining steadily since the early 1990’s, 2009 is the first year that the prison population has actually dropped. One might wonder why it took so long for prison populations to reflect that drop in crime. In fact, during the 1990’s, admissions to prison for new crimes grew by less than one percent a year. But parole vilolations as a proportion of all prison admissions more than doubled during that same period. That may reflect the fact that probation and parole have become very popular in recent years; there are currently more than five million offenders on probation or parole, reflecting an increase of 59% since 1990.
In one sense we should be pleased with the great appeal of probation and parole, obvious alternatives to prison. But the fact is, that they are not particularly successful alternatives. While the numbers released from prison grew for the seventh year in a row in 2009, admissions for violations of probation and parole increased for the fifth year in a row. As last year’s Pew Study pointed out, over 60% of prisoners return to prison within three years of release. It would appear that the stabilization of prison populations depends mostly on a new reluctance to sentence those with new offenses to state prison, while the recycling of parolees into prison continues to be immensely popular. So while we should be pleased to see prison populations stabilize and even drop (although 23 states still showed an increase in prison populations), we should direct our attention to the revolving door that rotates prisoners in and out of prison with great regularity. More attention needs to be paid to evidence-based prison alternatives that are working in our communities (like the Texas system of prison alternatives (see above), which includes SAFPF Reentry Court Programs).