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February 11, 2013

"America's prison boom is starting to fizzle"

The title of this post is the first sentence of this new Wall Street Journal article, which carries this headline and subheading: "With Fewer to Lock Up, Prisons Shut Doors: Declining Inmate Population, Partly Thanks to Softer Sentences, Spurs Some Cash-Strapped States to Close Facilities." Here are highlights:

For decades, the country had little trouble filling its ever-growing number of prisons, thanks in large part to tough-on-crime policies and harsh drug laws. But a combination of falling crime rates, softer sentences for low-level and nonviolent offenders and a dwindling appetite for hefty prison budgets has begun to whittle away at the number of people behind bars. That is allowing many states to do what a few years ago seemed unthinkable: close prisons.

Comprehensive numbers on prison closures are hard to come by. But the National Conference of State Legislatures shows that 35 adult correctional facilities in 15 states have closed in the past two years, and governors in states including Pennsylvania, New York and Illinois are pushing for more closures this year....

The closures haven't been without opposition. Corrections unions and community leaders worry about job losses and say a result could be overcrowding in the prisons that remain.

Cash-strapped states are increasingly turning to corrections budgets in search of cuts. From 1982 through 2001, state corrections budgets more than tripled to a peak of $53.5 billion, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Now, spending is 9% below that level. In Illinois, Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, is aiming to close four adult and three youth corrections facilities in a bid to save the state $70 million.

It isn't clear whether the nation's total prison count is shrinking. Some states, including Pennsylvania, are consolidating old facilities into new ones rather than eliminating capacity. In recent years, private-prison operators built new facilities, though analysts say the pace of construction has slowed.

Still, there does appear to be a broader shift in the corrections system. From 1990 through 2009, the number of people in state and federal prisons more than doubled to 1.6 million, while the number of prisons rose 41% to 1,821 from 1990 through 2005, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Then, in 2010, the inmate population fell for the first time in nearly four decades. It fell again in 2011, the bureau said.

The declines have been uneven. Roughly 70% of the 2011 decline in state prison rolls was due to a massive drop in California's inmate population owing to a Supreme Court order that the state reduce overcrowding. Many of those inmates are now in county jails or other facilities. Some states, including Tennessee and Kentucky, saw their prison populations rise in 2011.

Still, several states are experiencing a meaningful drop. Florida, Texas, New York and Michigan each shed more than 1,000 prisoners in 2011. Each of those states closed prisons in the past two years....

Policy experts attribute the declines partly to measures aimed at reducing the number of nonviolent offenders behind bars. In New York, they cite the 2009 relaxation of the state's tough Rockefeller-era drug laws. Prison rolls in New York fell by nearly a quarter from a peak of 72,600 in 1999 to about 55,000 in 2011, the latest data available.

Texas closed a state prison for the first time everin August 2011. Until the closure, the state had built an average of more than three prisons a year since 1990, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. "You've got to distinguish who you're afraid of and who you're mad at. You're afraid of child molesters, murderers and rapists," said State Sen. John Whitmire, who has helped lead an overhaul of the Texas prison system. "People like low-level offenders, you're not afraid of them."...

In rural areas, which often depend on prisons for jobs, a closure can be particularly difficult. In early January, Pennsylvania officials said they planned to shut prisons in Cresson and Greensburg and replace them with a single facility near State College. "It's going to hurt the restaurants, the hardware store, every business place here is going to be affected," said Patrick Mulhern, the longtime mayor of Cresson, east of Pittsburgh. "Five hundred employees in one fell swoop — that's an awful lot."

February 11, 2013 at 09:51 AM | Permalink


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"America's prison boom is starting to fizzle"

When you're really sick, you take a lot of medicine. As you get better, you take less. Fine. That's exactly the way it's supposed to be. But that doesn't mean the medicine doesn't work; if anything, it means the opposite. Thus it's good to keep the bottle handy should the inflamation show signs of re-appearing (which it's likely to do if you go back to unhealthy habits).

Posted by: Bill Otis | Feb 11, 2013 11:13:47 AM

Unfortunately, Bill, politicians are very much like the mentally ill. In fact, some might say they are one and the same.

There is a well-known phenomenon in mental health where the mentally ill are given therapy and medication for their illness. After much hard work and dosage adjustments, they begin to feel better. Once they do, they start believing that they do not need the medication any more and stop taking it and then go on a long decline back into their mental illness.

I have a strong feeling that the same will happen with this topic.

Posted by: TarlsQtr1 | Feb 11, 2013 11:47:50 AM

TarlsQtr1 --

It reminds me of the old story of the village that was constantly being overrun by elephants. Eventually the villagers decided to build a huge, stone wall around the village to keep the elephants out. It required a great deal of laber and resources, but it worked. The rampaging elephants were no longer a problem.

Years later, the new village chief suggested taking the wall down so that the stones could be used to build schools. One of the elders cried out, "But what are we going to do about the elephants?" To which the young chief replied, "Look, we could use these stones for uplifting purposes. Besides, we haven't had any elephants running through the village for years."

Posted by: Bill Otis | Feb 11, 2013 12:49:31 PM

But if the elephants, Bill, have learned finally that rampaging is not really a lot of fun (and/or if the schools can teach effective means for teaching elephants to stop rampaging), then I think it wise to use the stones for other purposes.

Metaphors and jokes aside, these comments spotlight some of the (justified?) pessimism I see in support for mass incarceration and some of the (naive?) optimism in criticism thereof. If we think Americans are uniquely like rampaging beasts or the mentally ill and thus destined to have certain criminal tendencies no matter what, then medication and walls are needed no matter what the (opportunity) costs. But I personally do not think Americans are, as a group, more evil or wild or sick than humans in the rest of the world, and so I do not fully understand why we seem to need to much more prison medicine or walls to secure our society. Maybe I need to go back on my meds...

Posted by: Doug B. | Feb 11, 2013 6:20:19 PM

Doug --

I have three kind of baseline views that account, I think, for why we come out differently on a number of the big questions.

First, I just want to go with what works. As I look over the last half century, I find that prison works and alternatives to prison don't, or at least they don't work as well. I view the greatly reduced crime rate (and thus crime victimization) in the era of "incarceration nation" to be a very welcome development.

Second, and with apologies to Harvey Silvergate, it just seems to me to be incredilby easy to stay out of trouble with the law. Get get a normal job, respect your neighbors' property, be straight with people, stay away from drugs. I don't think it's asking too much of people to live that way, and if they want to steal instead, they've brought it on themselves.

Third, I do not view criminals as victims of an evil society. This country has its flaws, as every country in the history of the world does, but it provides opportunity, tolerance and a chance to get ahead like few if other countries have, ever. Our criminals are not Jean Valjean. What's driving them is greed, wanting to make a fast buck without working like the rest of us have to, thinking they're better than other people, lacking normal empathy for others, and (sometimes) the belief that you can use violence to overpower the weak or exploit them.

The villagers built the wall for a reason. If they brush past what the elders say, they'll find out soon enough, but at great cost, what the reason was.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Feb 12, 2013 12:28:55 AM

good ones bill. Except for this!

"First, I just want to go with what works. As I look over the last half century, I find that prison works and alternatives to prison don't, or at least they don't work as well. I view the greatly reduced crime rate (and thus crime victimization) in the era of "incarceration nation" to be a very welcome development."

I can hire 6,000 people to change ONE light bulb. Yes it WILL get changed. But there is a hell of a lot of waste in there as well.

Our current "lock em allup" sytem has the same. All we are saying is that it's time to sit down look at the numbers from the last 50 years of "lock em all up" and see which ones we NEED to lock up and do something else with the rest.

Posted by: rodsmith | Feb 12, 2013 12:55:07 PM

rodsmith --

Imprisonment is like every other government program -- there's a lot of waste and inefficiency in it. But with all that, I'll be happy to match it up against the majority of government programs we've got, which produce nothing like the benefit (thousands fewer crime victims) at many times the cost (see, e.g., entitlement spending and the resulting astronomical indebtedness).

Posted by: Bill Otis | Feb 12, 2013 1:25:47 PM

I am not sure I disagree with anything you say, Bill, but I want to supplement your first point with my own take on modern crime/punishment trends: because many states and nations with low incarceration rates have also had modern crime declines, we do not really know for sure if prison works better than lots of (less costly) alternatives, and there is good social-science evidence that prison for certain types of low-level offenders may be criminogenic.

So what drive my thinking and disaffinity for modern US mass incarceration is this simple point: If many states and other nations can keep crime relatively low while also keeping incarceration levels (and its taxpayer costs) relatively low, why cannot all of the US?

Posted by: Doug B. | Feb 12, 2013 6:22:10 PM

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