As we discussed earlier, the U.S. prison population has fallen three years in a row. This third year makes the trend statistically significant in the eyes of some analysts. From 2011 to 2012, the prison population declined by more than 25,000 people. Remarkably, more than 1,000 of those people were in North Carolina.
According to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, North Carolina’s prison population is approximately 39,500 people this week. On average, it costs the state more than $27,000 a year to incarcerate each of those people. This cost may be at the root of the recent changes in population.
Economic recession leads to fewer prisons, fewer prisoners
Few of us have gone unaffected by the recession, and this includes the governments that are responsible for overseeing the state prisons. More than one-third of states closed prisons or considered closing prisons in 2011 and 2012. With state budgets across the country suffering, legislators were forced to cut wherever they could.
Not everyone is convinced that prisons will stay closed, given that the economy is bound to look up. In addition, it is possible that even though this movement provides a chance for prison reform, there will not be enough money to accomplish significant positive changes. If legislators and activists seize the moment, however, meaningful and lasting prison reform could be accomplished.
The economy is not the only reason the prison population has been altered. The public’s attitude toward crime and punishment has also changed.
The purpose of sentencing evolves
Politicians have begun to modify their approach to imprisonment. They have taken advantage of the public’s satisfaction with lower crime rates to focus on issues besides crime. Politicians’ constituents generally prefer that whatever money is available go to health care and schools, rather than prisons. This results in fewer calls for strict sentencing laws that leave no room for consideration of a defendant’s circumstances.
It also provides an opportunity to assess the true function of imprisoning people found guilty of committing crimes. As a policy adviser cited by The New York Times says, “It used to be ‘Trail ’em, nail ’em and jail ’em,’ but there’s been a move to say, ‘Yes, there’s a surveillance function, but we also want them to succeed.'”
Rather than simply locking up people found guilty of crimes, states are taking a more measured approach. Increasingly, they consider who will benefit from innovative models such as diversion programs. North Carolina took a big step toward changing its approach to imprisonment when it enacted revised sentencing laws. Treatment and supervision are emphasized in North Carolina, though this means that the state is scrambling to fund and hire more probation officers.
Ultimately, the more chances defendants who are found guilty of crimes have to get the support they need — including drug treatment, job support and education — the more likely they are to lead rewarding lives. This benefits all of North Carolina.
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Source: New York Times, “U.S. Prison Populations Decline, Reflecting New Approach to Crime,” Erica Goode, July 25, 2013
News & Observer, “Prison closures are price of NC sentencing reform,” Craig Jarvis, July 9, 2013
Wall Street Journal, “Prisons are shrinking. That won’t necessarily last.,” Mike Konczal, July 27, 2013