Last week, federal officials announced a decrease in our nation’s jail population for the first time since 1982. This comes at a time when overall crime is down despite this being the worse economic recession in decades. Although the announced decrease in jail population is a promising bit of news, reactions should be measured.
The US is 5 percent of the world’s population and has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Over the last 30 years, the US criminal justice system experienced the second largest increase in government investment, second only to health care. Last year, as state budget shortfalls loomed, 31 states cut education budgets while increasing money for incarceration.
Unless we support ongoing efforts to downscale prisons and jails, our country will literally go broke and funds for other public sector ventures will dry up.
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We cannot read too much into the downturn in people jailed. Without changes to policies responsible for high rates of incarceration, any down turn in incarceration can fluctuate and even spike back up.
What the federal government failed to mention, is that during the same time period the country experienced a decrease in jail population, jail space created through expansion projects reached an all time high. The capacity for all jails nationwide reached 849,544 beds at midyear 2009, up more than 2000 from 12 months earlier.