Prison Boom Pops: What's Crime Got to Do With It?

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Chad Lewis, spokesperson for the state Department of Corrections (DOC), succinctly states the conundrum facing the prison system: "How do you instantly go from expansion to contraction?" It's doubly hard, he says, since corrections departments here and across the country "for decades have been all about growth."

Now, the state Caseload Forecast Council is projecting a decline in the prison population by some 1,400 adults in the next two years (see the June '09 forecast). Accordingly, the DOC has just begun working with the state Office of Financial Management (OFM) to come up with a plan to cut prison beds statewide by 1,500, according to Lewis. While previously the DOC had discussed closing Pine Lodge Corrections Center for Women, the department is now waiting on a report from a consulting company hired by OFM before deciding which prisons or units to close. Staff layoffs will be "significant," Lewis says, a dramatic turnaround from a couple years ago, when the DOC was desperately recruiting.

If there were any doubt, this turn of events confirms that the size of the prison population has far more to do with politics and the economy than it does with the crime rate. Gongwei Chen, who worked on the prison figures for the Forecast Council, says that the main thing driving the projected drop in inmates are bills passed by the Legislature in the last session that would put offenders in home detention and drug treatment programs rather than prison, and offer them housing vouchers so they could come up with an approved release plan that would allow them to leave prison before their maximum sentence is served. The Legislature and the governor made plain that the budget crisis was driving these moves.

Likewise, the incredible boom in the state's prison population in the past two decades--from just under 10,000 in 1992 to 18,600 today-- occurred during a (mostly) prosperous time. "When the economy is good, people switch to a tough-on-crime mood," says Chen.

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