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Evan Horowitz

If crime is falling, why aren’t prisons shrinking?

Leading law enforcement figures from around the country are joining together Wednesday to announce their commitment to help lower America’s incarceration rate. The group, which includes Middlesex County Sheriff Peter J. Koutoujian along with the the police chiefs of New York, Chicago, and other major US cities is expected to emphasize the importance of limiting mandatory minimum sentences and expanding alternatives to arrest.

Over the last 30 years, prison populations have mushroomed all across the United States. The prison population in Massachusetts has grown substantially as well, though it remains well below the national average.

And while many states have started experimenting with approaches that ease criminal penalties, Massachusetts has taken only tentative steps in this direction.


How many people are in prison?

About 165 of every 100,000 people in Massachusetts are currently serving prison sentences of a year or longer. That number used to be a lot lower. In the late 1970s, just 50 of every 100,000 people were in state prisons.

You can find this same upward trend most everywhere in the United States; across the country, roughly 430 of every 100,000 people are in state prisons.

Why has the prison population grown so rapidly?

Initially, the growth in prison populations was a response to the surge in crime that shook American cities in the ’60s and ’70s. Faced with eruptions of violence, states everywhere began to put more people in prison and to increase the length of prison sentences.

Despite the fact that crime rates have declined dramatically since the early 1990s, those policing techniques and sentencing laws stayed in place. As a result, the prison population remains elevated.

The chart below tells the full story. A bubble of violent crime sparked a rapid increase in incarcerations. Yet, while the crime bubble has been slowly deflating for 25 years, the prison rate has stayed high.

How does Massachusetts stack up?

The prison population may have tripled, but Massachusetts still has one of the lowest rates of imprisonment in the United States, along with Maine, Minnesota, and Rhode Island. At the other end of the spectrum, Alabama, Texas, and Oklahoma imprison three times as many people.


Source: CBPP

Are states working to reverse this trend?

Liberal and conservative states alike have begun to reassess the efficacy of their incarceration policies. Partly, that’s about the strain on state budgets — building and maintaining prisons has proved extremely costly. But it’s also because of new research showing that it’s possible to loosen criminal penalties and reduce crime at the same time.

Over the last few years, the states that made the biggest reductions to their prison populations, including New Jersey and Connecticut, have also seen some of the biggest drops in crime. Since 2008, 29 states have seen both lower crime rates and smaller prison populations.

Justice reinvestment” is the term being used to describe this effort, and what it involves is a careful cost-benefit analysis to see how states can simultaneously keep people out of prison, reduce crime, and save money.

Among other things, states are experimenting with:

Looser drug laws. Over a dozen states, from California to Maine, have stopped sending people to prison for possessing small amounts of marijuana. And even with more serious drugs, it can be more effective — and cheaper — to help people get treatment. Texas has invested millions of dollars in treatment programs for drug offenders.

Electronic monitoring. Only recently has it become possible to effectively monitor people without putting them in prison. For those awaiting trial or struggling to keep up with the conditions of their parole, an ankle monitor can be a relatively inexpensive alternative to confinement. New Jersey is one of the states making use of this technology.


Therapy. Some forms of cognitive-behavioral therapy have been shown to keep one-time criminals from becoming two-time criminals, which is good for the public and good for state budgets. Dozens of different states have experimented with these therapies.

What reforms are being tried in Massachusetts?

Given that the prison population in Massachusetts is far smaller than elsewhere in the United States, there’s less urgency around issues of reform. Still, Massachusetts devotes about 3 percent of its budget — over $1 billion each year — to corrections. That’s twice what we spend on early education and roughly the same amount that we devote to higher education.

One step Massachusetts has taken is to ask for help. In August, leaders on Beacon Hill officially requested an independent assessment of the state’s criminal justice system, to be overseen by the Department of Justice and the Pew Charitable Trusts — something many other states have already done.

When the results become available, sometime in 2016, it could spark a flurry of legislative activity and revitalize the state’s sentencing commission, but there’s no guarantee of that. It’s a big step from data-gathering to policy-making.

For now, other states seem to be taking the lead in the effort to find targeted reforms that can safely reverse the decades-long increase in prison populations.


Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the United States. He can be reached at evan.horowitz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz