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State Prison Populations Continue to Drop, Increase at Federal Level


How State Prisons Are Staying a Step Ahead of the Feds

Headlines read out "overcrowded prisons" across the nation. Many federal prisons are above maximum capacity. In fact, the U.S. prison population has increased eightfold since the 1980s. As federal incarceration rates continue on an upward trend, state prison populations are beginning to decline. Multiple states even closed prisons last year.

The Justice Department is faced with a dilemma. Records show that smarter policing and crime prevention combined with alternative sentencing options are not just cost-effective, they are more effective overall in staving off recidivism. However, a third of the Justice Department's budget is being expended on sustaining an overcrowded federal prison system. They just don't have the funds to invest in these alternative sentencing programs when $6 billion of their budget goes directly to the Bureau of Prisons.

The 1980s gave birth to phrases like "tough on crime" and brought America's "war on drugs" into the public eye. Lawmakers started to pass mandatory minimum sentencing laws, three-strike policies, and truth in sentencing. At first, this worked, but the tough-on-crime stance had unintended consequences. Many low-level, non-violent criminal offenders ended up serving 25-to-life terms, much like criminals convicted of murder.

Crime rates are at some of the lowest levels they've been in years and prisons have become a proverbial money pit. States have taken notice, and have begun to pass legislation and implement programs with less of an emphasis on incarceration and a heavier shift to inmate rehabilitation. Many of these states report a continually dropping crime rate.

States Move to Amend Sentencing Laws, Invest in Alternative Programs

Lowering the crime rate no longer necessitates incarceration alone. Take a look at this infographic from The Pew Charitable Trust. Data indicates that the states that made the highest cuts in prison population saw bigger drops in the overall crime rate than states where the number of inmates was increasing.

More than half of the states in the U.S. have begun to experiment with sentencing alternatives like drug rehabilitation, home confinement, ankle bracelets, and supervised probation - 29 to be exact.

Do these alternative programs really work? Studies indicate that they do. Data from the last few decades indicates that more than half of inmates released from prison will re-offend and end back up in the prison system, many of them within a year.

The federal government is perhaps late to the game when it comes to implementing these programs because they're not as heavily restricted by budget as states are.

Things to Come

Most of the inmates in federal prison are serving time for serious crimes like murder, assault, and kidnapping, right? Turns out, no. This describes only 3 percent of our nation's federal prison population. Congress has taken notice.

Some sentencing amendment bills have already been passed and last month, President Obama himself offered early release to eight inmates sentenced under old mandatory sentencing laws. In the immediate future, we could very well see retroactive sentencing laws and early release of federal prison inmates. Stay tuned.

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