Sustained Outrage

State prison population shrinks, but not in W.Va.

A new study published this week by the Pew Center on the States notes that for the first time in almost 40 years, the overall number of people in state prisons in America has gone down. Since 1972, the prison population has exploded, increasing by 705 percent from 174,379 total state inmates nationally to 1,408,830 in on Dec. 31, 2008. (These figures do not include people serving sentences in federal facilities, only state prisons.)

By January 2010, the overall number shrank by 5,739 inmates, or 0.4 percent. Why the sudden change of direction? One reason, the study notes, could be that cash-strapped states are looking for ways to save money, and reducing the number of prisoners has a positive effect on the bottom line. But it’s too soon to conclude that a corner has been turned, the study cautions.

After nearly four decades of uninterrupted growth, an annual drop in the state prison population is worthy of note, no matter the scale of decline. However, it is too soon to say whether the 2009 decline will be a temporary blip or the beginning of a sustained downward trend.

It is possible that this narrow decline is simply seasonal and may adjust upward in the first half of 2010. The nation’s prison population can experience seasonal patterns, with growth tending to be clustered in the first half of the calendar year. The decline in 2009 could be part of a seasonal downward adjustment and an increase in the first six months of 2010 could eliminate the 5,739-person drop. With a decline this narrow, when the population is measured may affect the outcome.

Sadly, West Virginia was not a part of the national decline. Our prison population jumped 5.1 percent over the last year, growing by 308 prisoners. (That’s a pretty small number, but percentage-wise, only Indiana, at 5.3 percent, grew faster.) And this increase came at a time when Gov. Joe Manchin launched a gubernatorial commission on prison overcrowding.

As my colleague Alison Knezevich reported last week, at Manchin’s request, lawmakers passed legislation during the last session that would speed up parole for non-violent inmates. Del. Tim Miley (D-Harrison), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, estimated that the bill could affect 700 prisoners. The bill passed both houses and is currently awaiting the governor’s signature.

Even if only half of those inmates who Miley believes will qualify for consideration are actually paroled early, that would more than offset last year’s growth, and switch West Virginia from the 23 states with growing prison populations to the 27 that are reducing their numbers.

The Pew study lists reasons to be optimistic when it comes to reducing the prison population, and there’s no reason why these can’t apply to West Virginia.

  • Advances in supervision technology
  • Advances in the science of behavior change
  • Development of more accurate risk assessments
  • Polls show support for prison alternatives
  • Increasing focus on cost-benefit analysis
  • Budget pressure

As an aside, the number of inmates in federal prisons went up over the last year by 3.4 percent, growing from 201,280 to 208,118.