During my holiday hiaitus, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics released the latest data on the nation’s correctional population, and there was some big news: the correctional population declined in 2009 for the first time since BJS began tracking its size in 1980. Given steadily decreasing rates of growth, I suppose a year of negative growth was inevitable. Still, the 2009 data strike me as a notable milestone.
The correctional population is comprised of four groups: prison inmates (1.5 million), jail inmates (0.8 million), parolees (0.8 million), and probationers (4.2 million).
Of the four categories, all but the number of prison inmates declined from 2008 to 2009. Leading the way in percentage decline was the jail population, which was down 2.2 percent.
The BJS report does not attempt to suggest reasons for the decline, but the jail data are consistent with what I would expect to see during a time of extraordinary budgetary pressures on state and local goverment. Jails and prisons are very expensive to run, so there are powerful fiscal incentives to reduce the populations. However, jail populations are much easier to reduce in the short term than prison populations, for reasons both administrative (prison sentences are much longer than jail sentences, so changes in front-end policies and practices take much longer to manifest themselves in a significant way in prison numbers) and political (prison inmates tend to have more serious criminal records than jail inmates, and no one wants another Willie Horton). I am familiar with efforts here in Milwaukee to reduce the size of our jail population, which is a significant drain on local government funds, and I imagine similar initatives have been undertaken across the country since the recession began, which may be reflected in the 2009 BJS data.
Although the prison population did not decline in 2009, it did register its smallest annual increase since 2000. Interestingly, the state prison population did decline slightly (0.4 percent), but that decrease was more than offset by a rather startling increase in the size of the federal prison population (up 3.4 percent). I’m not sure what explains that increase. Is it another indication of the federal obliviousness to the sorts of fiscal pressures that state and local governments must deal with?
In any event, the overall 2009 data are in line with long-term trends in the correctional population. The number of Americans under criminal justice supervision skyrocketed in the 1980′s. (This increase closely corresponds with a contemporaneous decrease in the number of Americans held in mental health institutions — what a fascinating story lies in that shift!) Annual increases in the size of the correctional population often approached or exceeded ten percent. In the 1990′s, however, annual increases were almost always below five percent. Since 2000, the annual increases have typically been below two percent. Perhaps the 2009 data give us a preview of what the new decade of the 2010′s will hold in store.
But here is a sobering fact: even following the 2009 decline, one out of every thirty-two adults in this country is under criminal justice supervision.