2012 marked the third consecutive year of decline in the United States prison population after thirty years of consecutive growth. Last year the population dropped by 1.7 percent largely because of decreases in Texas, California, North Carolina, Colorado, Arkansas, New York, Virginia and Maryland. Many see the three-year decline as a major change in America’s approach to criminal justice and punishment.
The decrease in prison population does not follow partisan lines. Texas reduced the number of inmates by more than 5,000 last year, a large shift from five years ago when the state was short 17,000 beds to this year when TDCJ closed down two units. Many attribute this change in Texas to a new focus on rehabilitation in the parole context and with non-violent drug offenders.
Hopefully this marks a change in the way we think of punishment and incarceration. The growth in prison population over the last thirty years is staggering. In 1978 there were 307,276 inmates compared to 2009 when there were 1,615,487 inmates. Over that same period the population grew from 222.6 million to 313.9 million. This means that in 1978 roughly 1.3 of every thousand people were incarcerated and in 2009 roughly 5 people of every thousand was incarcerated. A complex set of explanations and political incentives led to the current situation. It always easy to criminalize behaviors and increase sentences it is often difficult to do the opposite. Experts indicate that while the downturn in incarceration began as a result of stressed state budgets the shift has taken on a new life as result of low crime rates and shifts in public opinion. Given that over %45 of those in prison are there for non-violent offenses it seems like a good time to review the policies that led to the current situation. Weather the review is motivated by fiscal or moral reasons the important thing is that we try to review our policies in order to determine who really needs to be locked up.