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July 20, 2010

Effective review of New Jersey's recent significant prison population declines

Thanks to The Crime Report, I saw this effective local article from New Jersey discussing the Garden State's significant reduction in its prison population over the last decade.  The piece is headlined "N.J.'s inmate population declines, officials credit less crime, prisoner re-entry programs," and here are excerpts:

In Kentucky, authorities started a controversial program to release inmates early to alleviate prison overcrowding.  In California, federal judges ordered prisons to shed 46,000 inmates in a case heading to the U.S. Supreme Court.

But in New Jersey, the prison population fell 14.8 percent from 2000 to 2009 without any need for such drastic actions, according to new federal statistics.  New Jersey is one of only six states to reduce the number of prisoners over the decade.

With 25,263 inmates in the system as of this month, state prisons still hold more people than they were designed for. And 600 additional inmates will be double-bunked this year to save money.  But officials say the overall population shrank because crime was cut, drug courts diverted many people from jail, and programs helped inmates prepare for life on the outside.

"It’s a pretty impressive reduction," said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy organization.  "We’re not just talking about a tinkering. It comes about through conscious changes in criminal justice policy."

New York is the only state whose prison population declined faster than New Jersey’s, by 16.4 percent.  Maryland, Michigan, Delaware and Illinois also cut their inmate numbers.

But while the total number of state prison inmates in the country dropped last year for the first time since 1972, most states struggle with increasingly large and expensive prison populations.  West Virginia packed its prisons with 65.1 percent more inmates from 2000 to 2009.  Minnesota, Arizona, Florida and Kentucky had increases from 45 to 60 percent.

"It’s hard to find a state not having a problem," Mauer said. State officials, researchers and experts said New Jersey’s progress reflects a multi-faceted approach to the issue — before sentencing, in prison and after incarceration....

One big reason for the reduction in inmates is that fewer people are going to prison in New Jersey. In 2000, 12,845 were sent to state prison. In 2009, there were 11,948.

The state’s overall crime rate fell 17.1 percent from 2000 to 2008, the last year Uniform Crime Report statistics are available. Violent crime dropped 13.2 percent in that period....

Offenders who commit nonviolent drug-related crimes can enter drug court programs to avoid prison time and receive treatment... The state recently loosened mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, a primary reason for prison population increases. Some people caught dealing drugs within 1,000 feet of a school will no longer be automatically sent to prison for one to three years....

Smaller inmate populations can’t come fast enough for states facing severe budget deficits. In New Jersey, where the deficit was $11 billion, each inmate costs about $49,000 a year.... New Jersey closed Riverfront State Prison in Camden last year, saving at least $43 million annually.  The state also stopped using a Kearny facility to house civilly committed sex offenders. Overall, the corrections budget dropped $67 million, to $1.08 billion, this year.

July 20, 2010 at 09:32 PM | Permalink

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