State Prison Population Declines for First Time in Four Decades


According to a new survey by the Pew Center on the States, as of January 2010, there were 1,404,053 people in state prisons, which was 4777 fewer than reported at the end of 2008. This marks the first year-to-year drop in the nation’s state prison population since 1972.

During the same period, the nation’s total prison population actually increased because the number of people held in federal prisons rose by 3.4% in 2009 to an all-time high of 208,118. Including people incarcerated in federal prisons as well as people held in jails, 2,397,604 people were incarcerated in America in 2010.

Starting in 1973, the prison population and incarceration rates rose dramatically. Between 1925 and 1972, the prison population increased by 105%, but in the four decades since 1972, that number grew by 705%. In 2008 the number of Americans behind bars reached an all-time high, with 1 in 100 adults incarcerated.

Prison Count 2010 reports that the decline in prisoners was not consistent across all the states: the prison population dropped in 26 states but rose in 24 others. California led the states in reducing the number of people in custody; the state’s prisoner count fell by 4869 in 2008-2009. Michigan, New York, Maryland, Texas, and Mississippi each reduced their inmate counts by more than 1000 in 2009.

In the states where the prison population grew, just five states accounted for more than half of the increase: Pennsylvania (2122), Florida (1527), Indiana (1496), Louisiana (1399), and Alabama (1053).

The decline could continue, the report says, as states motivated by financial pressures continue to enact reforms that reduce prison populations and save money while promoting public safety, including diverting low-level offenders and probation and parole violators from prison; strengthening community supervision and re-entry programs; and accelerating the release of low-risk inmates who complete risk reduction programs.

Polls show public support for using community corrections rather than prison for nonviolent offenders. In a 2007 voter poll, for example, 83% of Texas respondents said they preferred “a mandatory intensive treatment program as an alternative to prison” that could help avert $1 billion in new prison costs.