A prison peak?

The prison population in the United States dropped ever so slightly in 2009, for the first time since 1972. And there are indications last year’s numbers could signal a sustained trend in prison populations.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the decreasing prison population numbers may have as much to do with state budget woes as with reasoned revisions of sentencing rules that have been sending more people to prison over the past two decades. California and Michigan, each facing catastrophic budget problems, combined to reduce their prison populations by more than 7,500 inmates last year, and more may be coming.

Even so, the Pew Center on the States said there is a growing realization by lawmakers in many states that there are more effective and less-costly alternatives for incarceration for many nonviolent inmates. Colorado is among those states re-examining its sentencing structure. We’ll have more on that later.

For now, however, we’ll simply say that sentencing reform — and reductions in prison populations — should be driven by what’s in the best interest of law-abiding citizens of each state, not to meet short-term budget goals.


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