Why The Prison Population is Falling

I was glad to see that my post on the declining rate of incarceration in the U.S. was picked up by a number of other blogs and newspapers. In those fora, a number of people argued that the recent decrease is simply a function of state budgets being tight. The Pew Charitable Trusts has a thoughtful analysis out suggesting that it is more complex than that.

The number of people incarcerated went up every single year from the mid 1970s until 2009. Over that more than 30 year period, there have been economic booms and contractions, changes in the relative strength of the major political parties, alterations in the demographic makeup of the US general population, the waxing and waning of drug epidemics, and countless other changes in American life. What that should tell us is that any simple explanation for why America has the prison policy it does at any given time is wrong or at least incomplete.

Pew notes that over the past 5 years, incarceration fell in 29 states (ruling out another simple explanation: that this is all due to the court order to reduce overcrowding in California prisons). The factors Pew describes as important are

(1) The evident success of states like Texas which have reduced imprisonment, costs and crime at the same time

(2) Widespread public/political support for reduced incarceration, including among influential conservatives

(3) Research-based alternatives to prison. These include “swift-and-certain” probation and parole initiatives such as HOPE Probation and 24/7 sobriety, both of which have been touted by the Obama Administration.

To Pew’s list, it would be reasonable to add the aging of the incarcerated population because older prisoners are unlikely to re-offend after release. Also important have been the sharp reduction in crime and attendant decline in public fear of victimization, and, the almost total disappearance in Washington and many state capitols of lock-em-up rhetoric regarding low-level drug crimes.

[Originally posted at The Reality-based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.