The report released today by Bureau of Justice Statistics on the 2009 year-end prison population was a mixed bag.
The remarkable news is that, for the first time since 1972, the total state prison population went down. The decrease was not large − slightly less than 3,000 inmates (2,941) in a total state inmate population of 1.4 million. But the first drop in 38 years, even if small, is notable evidence of the Great Recession, if not necessarily of a rethinking of the underpinnings of sentencing policy.
And yet, despite the state decline, the overall U.S. prison population still kept going up, as the federal figure increased by 6838 to 208,118. The federal increase was 3,897 more than the state decrease, putting the combined state and federal total at 1,613,656 on December 31, 2009, according to BJS.
As Doug Berman noted in his sentencing blog, it’s scarcely a surprise that the one jurisdiction constitutionally able to run a deficit went in the opposite direction from budget-strapped states.
I would add a further thought, with a nod to Jim Webb’s ongoing effort to initiate a real dialog about fundamental sentencing reform. If reform is driven only by fiscal realities, and not also by a revisiting of the mass-incarceration model itself, the results are not likely to amount to much.
To be sure, cost is important. The more important question, however, is what purposes are served by mass incarceration? Intoning the words “public safety” endlessly is not an answer. It is a tautology − maybe even a boondoggle.