Many states sending fewer people to prison, federal report shows

By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The number of people in U.S. prisons has grown at the slowest pace in nearly a decade, according to figures released Tuesday by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The study also found that incarceration rates in 30 states declined last year.

Across the country, states are sending fewer people to prison as they grapple with a severe economic recession. Last year, the number of people sent to prison was down 0.5 percent from the previous year, while the number of people released from prison increased by 2 percent.

The steepest drop was in Georgia, where the prison population between 2007 and 2008 was down by 2,509 inmates, or 2.8 percent. In Maryland, there were 109 fewer people in jail, a decrease of 0.5 percent. The population in Virginia was up slightly at 207 more inmates, an increase of 0.5 percent. Data were not available for D.C. jails, which were transferred to federal authority after 2001.

The numbers may reflect the decision by some state governments to cut the high cost of corrections systems. Many are reevaluating their sentencing, parole and drug policies to try to scale back the expense of housing criminals. This fall, lawmakers in Rhode Island passed a law eliminating mandatory minimum drug sentences, and legislators in Massachusetts and Ohio are considering sentencing reforms.

Will Marling, executive director of the National Organization for Victim Assistance, said he is concerned about the change in policy. "The issue for us is that it seems to be an issue of financial expediency rather than a justice issue," he said. "Ultimately, these decisions were made in a court of law. Hopefully, in view of the law and the crime, these sentences will not simply be nullified out of concerns for space."

The Bureau of Justice Statistics data also found that the incarceration rate for African Americans -- who are imprisoned at rates higher than other racial groups -- fell sharply, with 9 percent fewer black people behind bars. Studies this year by the Sentencing Project, a research group that advocates for lower rates of imprisonment, have attributed the decline to the lower number of blacks imprisoned for drug offenses.

A report released earlier this year by the project found a 21.6 percent decline in the number of African Americans incarcerated in state prisons for a drug offense from 1999 to 2005, along with a rise of 42.6 percent in the number of white drug offenders. Still, black males are incarcerated at more than six times the rate of white males, and black females at three times the rate of white females, Marc Mauer, the project's executive director, said in a statement.

"While the declining number of African Americans in prison is encouraging, the scale of racial disparity in imprisonment is still dramatic," Mauer said.

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