While state prison populations across the country have been increasing during the last 15 years, three states have been reducing theirs at a remarkable rate – and crime rates have dropped as a result.
According to the Sentencing Project’s report, “Fewer Prisoners, Less Crime: A Tale of Three States,” between 1999 and 2012, New York and New Jersey reduced their prison populations by 26 percent – the highest in the country during that period. California was close behind, having reduced its population by 23 percent between 2006 and 2012. Meanwhile, the national population of state prisons increased 10 percent from 1999 to 2012, and decreased 1 percent from 2006 to 2012.
During the same periods, violent crime in those three states declined at a greater rate than the rest of the country. New York and New Jersey’s violent crime rate fell by 31 percent and 30 percent, respectively, while the national rate decreased by 26 percent. California’s rate fell 21 percent from 2006 to 2012; the national decline was 19.
According to the report, prison populations in those states declined due to changes in policy and practice, rather than shifts in crime rates. For example, initiatives diverted drug offenders into treatment programs, reduced the number of offenders returning to prison because of technical parole violations and gave judges more power of discretion during sentencing.
A contributing factor in the population declines is the reduction of recidivism, the rate at which released inmates return to prison, usually measured within three years. According to Nazgol Ghandnoosh, research analyst at the Sentencing Project, recidivism rates are usually more affected by policy decisions, such as reducing terms of supervision and probation, not crime levels. The study also noted that releasing prisoners early has little or no impact on recidivism rates.
According to a study by the Pew Center on the States, “State of Recidivism: The Revolving Door of America’s Prisons,” the national rate of recidivism in 2007 for inmates released in 2004 was 43.3 percent, a small decrease from the 45.4 percent in 2002. Illinois’ 2007 rate was 51.7 percent, down slightly from 51.8 percent. New York’s rates were static but considerably lower, 39.9 in both 2007 and 2002, while New Jersey’s dropped considerably, down to 42.7 percent from 48.2 percent.
California, which hit a prison population high in 2006, had 57.8 percent recidivism rate in 2007, down from 61.1 in 2002.
The authors of the Sentencing Project’s report argue that the growing numbers of long-term prisoners still need to be examined and call for reallocation of the savings from prison reductions to public safety initiatives in communities most affected by mass incarceration.