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Getting Prison Numbers Down

Sufficient reforms not yet in place to continue prison population decline

CHICAGO --- The decline of the prison population for the second year in a row is certainly good news, but the evidence is far less convincing that states are on the verge of reducing prison populations at anything approaching a pace that will have an impact on mass incarceration, according to Malcolm C. Young, director of prison reentry strategies at the Northwestern University School of Law’s Bluhm Legal Clinic.

Young, the author of a recent report titled “Getting Prison Numbers Down – For Good” is responding to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) report, published in December. 

The report shows that the number of offenders under adult correctional supervision in the United States declined 1.3 percent in 2010, the second consecutive year of decline since BJS began reporting on this population in 1980. At year end 2010, about 7.1 million people, or one in 33 adults, were under the supervision of adult correctional authorities in the United States.

In his report, Young cites Michigan, New Jersey and New York as states that distinguished themselves for consistency and the amount by which they decreased their prisoner population in the decade starting in 2000, a period of time when the country’s total prisoner population increased by more than 12 percent.

But other states that have been successful in reducing their prison populations, such as Kansas, have in recent years cut initiatives, such as post-release drug treatment and supervision programs, that experts believe help reduce recidivism. The political climates in some states have led to suppression of proposals to reduce sentence lengths, and the abolishment of programs because of budget cuts continue to affect efforts to reduce prison incarceration.

“According to conventional wisdom, depressed state economies would compel states to take the steps necessary to reduce prison incarceration, and the public would support reductions in prison populations in favor of lower public expenditures and reduced taxes,” Young said. “What actually happened suggests a disconnect rather than a causal connection between policymaker’s fiscal concerns and their willingness to take effective steps to reduce incarceration.”

Young cites Illinois as a prime example. A cash-strapped state, Illinois led all the states in the number of sentenced prisoners it added in 2010 (3,257), a 7.2 percent increase, followed by Arkansas (6.6 percent) and Iowa (6.5 percent).

After a bipartisan majority of Illinois state lawmakers agreed to a policy of further restraining the state’s use of prisons in 2009, Young writes, inaccurate news reporting and political opportunism by members of both parties pushed Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn to suspend Meritorious Good Time (MGT), a 30-year-old good conduct program through which about 24,000 prisoners were released on average 135 days before the end of their terms.

“Suspending MGT drove up the prison population,” Young said, “causing the kind of severe overcrowding or ‘warehousing’ that occurred in California prisons in the run-up to last May’s U.S. Supreme Court case that ordered a population reduction.” 

Citing efforts in Michigan, New Jersey and New York, Young offers lessons for reform in his report including:

  •  In each state the governor supported reform efforts, appointing department heads charged with the mission of reducing incarceration
  •  The state corrections director became an ardent spokesperson for the initiative
  •  Initiatives were put under the administrative control of outspoken champions of the broad goal of reducing incarceration 

A full copy of the report is available at

Topics: Chicago, Research
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