This is the first of four posts on America’s scandalous prison industrial complex. I start with the good news. Thanks to the budget crisis most states have faced since the 2008 economic crash, US prison populations have shrunk by 600,000.
States Save Billions by Downsizing Prisons
An important silver lining of the 2008 economic downturn has been a decline in the US incarceration rate. Despite two decades of declining violent and property crime rates, the US still enjoys the highest incarceration rate (500 per 100,000 population) in the world. Nevertheless, thanks to the recession-related budget crisis in 48 state capitols, America’s prison population has started to fall. According to CBS News, between 2009 and 2012, it fell from a peak of 2.2 million to 1.57 million.
In 2013 prison populations rose slightly (there were an estimated 1,574,700 inmates on December 31, 2013 – an increase of 4,300 prisoners).
What explains this overall decline in prison occupancy? Between 2008 and mid-2013* every state except Montana and North Dakota faced yearly budget shortfalls. Because states aren’t allowed to run deficits, most had to make substantial cuts in “essential” state programs, including education, housing, highway maintenance and repair – and most importantly prisons.
In 2010, the last time such costs were calculated, the average annual cost of incarceration was $28,000 – $40,000 per inmate.
This definite budget breaker has led 26 states to resist lobbing by private prison operators such as Corrections Corporation of America, Wackenhut, Cornell Corrections and their friends at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and enact legislation to reduce prison numbers.
California’s Criminal Justice Realignment Act
California clearly leads the nation in this initiative. When the US Supreme Court (in May 2011) upheld a lower court ruling ordering them to reduce prison overcrowding, Sacramento had the hard choice between borrowing money to build more prisons, paying private prisons in other states to take their offenders or adopting the Criminal Justice Realignment Act. This legislation works to move nonviolent offenders out of the prison system, as well as finding alternatives to custodial sentences for new nonviolent offenders. Under the Realignment Act, the number of inmates in California prisons has dropped by 25,000 since 2011. The count of offenders on parole is down about 30,000, and prisoners held in private out-of-state prisons is down 10 percent.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation estimates that it saves $1.5 billion a year through realignment and will save another $2.2 billion a year by canceling $4.1 billion in new construction projects.
25 Other States Work to Cut Prison Populations
According to the ACLU and NORML, 25 other states are saving money by cutting and/or slowing the growth of their prison populations. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia are working to to reduce their incarceration of nonviolent offenders by decriminalizing marijuana.*
- Alabama – passed law allowing a sentencing commission to set new guidelines for nonviolent crimes.
- Alaska – decriminalized marijuana
- Colorado – shut down large penitentiary in view of falling crime rates and passed a ballot initiative in 2012 legalizing marijuana use for recreational purposes.
- Connecticut – became 17th state to repeal death penalty in April 2012, as well as decriminalizing marijuana.
- District of Columbia – decriminalized marijuana.
- Florida – closed eight prisons that were built in anticipation of a crime wave that never occurred
- Georgia – passed bill reducing sentences for low level drug offenses and theft, creates drug and mental illness courts and establishes graduated sanctions, such as community service, for probation violations.
- Hawaii – passed law requiring the use of risk assessments in pretrial and parole hearings, to enable the identification of individuals who pose the most risk to public safety, as well as those who can be safely supervised outside of prison or jail.
- Illinois – passed SB 2621, reinstating a program that allows prisoners to reduce their sentences through good behavior and participation in reentry programs. The bill also provides incentives for prisoners to participate in programs, such as drug treatment, that reduce recidivism.
- Kansas – passed a law allowing judges to divert individuals convicted of low-level crimes from prison to less expensive and more effective substance abuse treatment.
- Louisiana – passed one law allowing prisoners serving life sentences for nonviolent crimes to go before a parole board to prove they are ready for release and another allowing inmates who have committed repeat low-level offenses to appear before a parole board after serving one-third of their sentences.
- Maine – decriminalized marijuana
- Maryland – passed a law increasing the number of offenses that must/can be charged via citation instead of arrest and detention.
- Massachusetts – decriminalized marijuana
- Minnesota – decriminalized marijuana
- Mississippi – decriminalized marijuana
- Missouri – passed one law reducing disparity for crack and powder cocaine offenses and another sending fewer people back to prison for technical violations of probation and parole, such as a missed meeting or failed drug test.
- Nebraska – decriminalized marijuana
- Nevada – decriminalized marijuana
- New York – decriminalized marijuana
- North Carolina – decriminalized marijuana
- Ohio – decriminalized marijuana
- Oregon – decriminalized marijuana
- Rhode Island – decriminalized marijuana
- Vermont – decriminalized marijuana
- Washington State – created the LEAD program, which diverts individuals charged with low-level offenses into community-based services, such as drug treatment, immediately after arrest and before booking. Also passed a ballot initiative in November 2012 legalizing recreational marijuana.
*In 2013, increasing tax revenues enabled all but two states (Washington and California), to balance their budgets without major cuts.
**In most instances decriminalization means no prison time or criminal record for first-time possession of a small amount for personal consumption. Instead the offense is treated like a minor traffic violation.