The Pew Public Safety Performance Project (PSPP) recently released a project updated entitled, “U.S. Prison Count Continues to Drop.” The update says that after nearly four decades of “explosive growth,” the U.S. prison population declined for two years in a row (from 2009-10 and 2010-11). During those two years, the number of inmates fell in about half of the states, according to the update.

Over the past five years, the imprisonment rate fell in 29 states, led by California, with a 17 percent drop after a U.S. Supreme Court mandate to reduce its prison population.

The top five states with the highest reduction in imprisonment rates between 2006 and 2011 were:

1.       California (-17%)

2.       Hawaii (-16%)

3.       Massachusetts (-15%)

4.       Michigan (-15%)

5.       New Jersey (-14%)

According to the report, “Many of the states showing recent drops have taken substantial steps to rein in the size and cost of their corrections systems. Often with overwhelming bipartisan votes, leaders in these states have shortened terms behind bars for lower-level offenders or diverted them from prison altogether.”

The update asserts that the reasons for the declining prison population transcend cost-savings; that there are other, more important, factors driving the trend. They include strong public support for change; research-based alternatives to prison; and proven success stories, like Texas, which took funds originally slated for prison construction, and instead invested in treatment programs for offenders. Since these programs were implemented, both the statewide parole failure rate – and the crime rate – have fallen dramatically.

The Public Safety Performance Project (PSPP) is a research and public policy organization that works with states to promote public safety, hold offenders accountable, and control corrections costs. The PSPP is an ongoing project of the Pew Charitable Trusts.