A new report finds that during 2013, at least six states closed 20 correctional facilities or contemplated doing so, potentially reducing prison capacity by 11,370 beds and saving more than $97 million.
The Sentencing Project reports that 17 states have reduced prison capacity by more than 35,000 beds since 2011 as state prison populations have declined. The latest data show that the prison population nationwide has fallen for the past three years. The U.S. prison population was 1.5 million at the end of 2012 — a decline of 1.7 percent since 2011.
North Carolina led the continued trend of state prison closures in 2013. The state reduced capacity by 1986 beds, saving about $40 million. Georgia, Kentucky, New York, Pennsylvania, and Texas also closed prisons last year.
Changes in sentencing policy and practices have allowed states to curb and even reverse growth in the prison population. States have scaled back mandatory sentencing laws, increased parole release rates, and authorized earned release from community supervision. In 2013, Kansas, Oregon, and South Dakota authorized earned discharge for people who comply with their parole supervision conditions. Colorado authorized alternatives to incarceration for those convicted of certain felony drug offenses.
At least 31 states adopted 46 reforms aimed at reducing state prison populations in 2013. Georgia authorized judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses. In California, where a 2011 ruling from the United States Supreme Court required the state to reduce its prison population, thousands of people have been sentenced to county jails rather than state prisons.
Texas and New York have addressed the potential community impact of closing prisons by making plans to sell closed prisons for non-correctional uses. For example, the closed Dawson State Jail in Texas is now part of an urban development project, with houses, waterfront condominiums, shops, and restaurants. The report notes that repurposing prisons has been effective in overcoming political opposition to prison closings.