Is the Prison Building Boom About to Go Bust?

Sentencing reform laws are one reason why inmate populations are declining, but the state of U.S prison policy is still bad news.

prisoner on his own

This year at least six states have closed or are considering closing 20 prisons, which could potentially reduce prison capacity by more than 14,100 beds. (Photo: Max Whittaker/Getty Images)

is a Los Angeles-based writer whose work has appeared Atlantic, Back Stage, The Christian Science Monitor and The Hill.

Addicted to heroin throughout the early 1990s, Sergio Ayala supported his habit by stealing VCRs, video cameras or whatever valuables he could find in the houses he burglarized around San Diego. In 1995, he stole a leaf blower off a truck, was caught, convicted and sentenced to life in a California prison. The leaf blower was his third strike.

After serving 17 years, Ayala’s now set to be released as a result of a change in California law that was passed back in November. Proposition 36 requires the third strike to be a violent offense, which Ayala’s wasn’t; so the 55-year-old Tijuana native and many other third strikers like him are now eligible for release.

California’s ongoing effort to shed inmates from its unconstitutionally overcrowded prisons (as determined by the U.S. Supreme Court in May 2011) is part of a national trend that’s seen state prison populations drop, prisons close and sentencing laws reformed.

MORE: America’s Out-of-Control Jail Culture

In addition to reforming its three strikes law, California has also downgraded simple marijuana possession from a criminal offense to an infraction, which meant arrests for marijuana possession dropped 86 percent in 2011, according to the Center on Juvenile & Criminal Justice, a nonprofit, non-partisan think tank based in San Francisco.

Other states have had similar successes in reducing their prison populations.

In fact, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported recently that the overall state prison population in 2011 declined for the third year in a row. As a result, states have reversed the prison-building boom and begun closing correctional facilities. This year, at least six states have closed or are considering closing 20 prison institutions—a potential savings of some $337 million, according to the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based advocacy group, which published the figures in a December 7 report.

“People are applauding what should really be appalling. The more of a spotlight we put on it, the better off we’ll be.”

The surprise leader of the pack: Florida. The Sunshine State, which is no softie when it comes to prison policy, led the country with its closure of 10 correctional facilities, which some see as a positive signal.

“Continued declines in state prison populations advance the narrative that the nation’s reliance on incarceration is largely a function of policy choices,” the Sentencing Project wrote in its report.

Still, some observers note that a three-year shift has done little to reverse the explosion of the prisoner population that happened during the previous decades.

“We’re still extremely high,” Michael Mushlin, a law professor at Pace University in New York, tells TakePart. “A lot of people fall into the trap and say, ‘Oh, that’s just America,’ but it didn’t used to be like that. It’s really in the past 25 years or so” that the U.S. prison population has dramatically increased.

Mushlin notes that while California’s prison population is some 133,000 today, the historical norm, accounting for population growth, would have been about one third of that. “This is not consonant with out traditions, our values,” says Mushlin. “We just took a wrong path.”

Mushlin, who has spoken out against the practice of using long-term solitary confinement on troublesome prisoners, says the recent decrease shouldn’t be considered progress in light of how far we would need to go to reduce the prisoner population per capita to what it was in the middle of the 20th century.

“People are applauding what should really be appalling,” he says. “The more of a spotlight we put on it, the better off we’ll be.”

Is something wrong that America’s per capita prison population has skyrocketed in the past century, or is modern law enforcement just doing a better job? Leave your thoughts in COMMENTS.

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