Tuesday, April 13, 2010

What Went Up Can Come Down

Correctional populations have gone up so steadily for so long that it had come to seem almost like a law of nature.

Over a decade ago, when the total number of people in jail or prison reached 2 million, the conservative scholar John J. Dilulio opined that this was (finally) enough. Further increases were not likely to enhance public safety and might even diminish it, as wholesale incarceration decimated the social stability of so many neighborhoods.

Yet the number of inmates continued to go up - from 2 million in jail or prison in 1999 to 2.3 million in 2009.

In several states, however, the relentless budgetary pressure wrought by the Great Recession is forcing a rethinking. Indeed, in some states the numbers are actually starting to come down.

Michigan is a case in point. On my recent trip to Grand Rapids for a board meeting of Prison Congregations of America, I learned that the statewide prison population has gone down from 51,000 to 45,0000 in a matter of months. State officials have prioritized reentry for ex-offenders (or, as one prison ministry volunteer called them, "returning citizens"). As a result, what once seemed immutable is now in a condition of rapid change.

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