States reduce prison populations as budgets shrink

By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 3, 2010; 1:14 PM

Many state governments continued last year to reduce their prison populations through sentencing reforms enacted because of shrinking state budgets, according to two reports released Wednesday by a research group that advocates for lower rates of imprisonment.

In 2009, at least 19 states adopted criminal justice policies intended to cut down on the number of prisoners they house by shortening sentences, according to the Sentencing Project. For example, Minnesota, New York and Rhode Island each scaled back mandatory sentencing laws for some drug offenses.

Three states -- Michigan, New Jersey and New York -- reduced their prison populations by at least 12 percent in the past decade by making similar changes, according to state public safety data cited by the report. Those states saw no increase in crime, according to the report.

New York's prison population is down 20 percent, from 72,899 in 1999 to 58,456 in 2009. Michigan's had a 12 percent reduction, from 51,577 in 2006 to 45,478 in 2009. New Jersey's is down 19 percent, from 31,493 in 1999 to 25,436 in 2009.

State legislators have been largely motivated by the need to cut costs, said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project. "It's really become a nonpartisan issue on the state level given the fiscal crisis," Mauer said. "The cost of funding prisons is competing with the cost of higher education."

Will Marling, executive director of the National Organization for Victim Assistance, has said he is concerned about the trend. "The issue for us is that it seems to be an issue of financial expediency rather than a justice issue."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company