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Thursday, March 25, 2010 06:49 pm

Illinois prison population declines

Nationwide drop reflects new approaches to incarceration

Illinois’ prison population declined by 313 inmates in 2009, says the Pew Center on the States, adding to an annual decrease in the number of inmates in state prisons nationwide for the first time in nearly four decades.

In a report titled, “Prison Count 2010,” Pew says the number of inmates in state prisons nationwide dropped .4 percent in 2009 – the first decline since 1972. That equates to about 5,700 fewer prisoners, out of about 1.4 million in state prisons across the United States.

“After nearly four decades of uninterrupted growth, an annual drop in the state prison population is worthy of note, no matter the scale of decline,” Pew says. “However, it is too soon to say whether the 2009 decline will be a temporary blip or the beginning of a sustained downward trend.”

The decrease in Illinois comes after nearly 2,000 Illinois inmates were released early from state prisons in 2009, and many were subsequently re-incarcerated when public outcry forced a halt to the early release program. Illinois currently holds about 45,000 inmates in facilities designed for about 31,000.

Januari Smith, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Corrections, says the state’s prison population decrease comes from two sources.

“The primary reason is the decline in (inmates sent to prison by the court system,) especially from Cook County,” Smith says.  “Secondly, the department’s recidivism rate has dropped incrementally from a high of 54.6 percent for fiscal year 2001 exits to 51.3 percent for fiscal year 2006 exits.” That recidivism rate means that more than half of Illinois inmates released from prison will return.

Illinois is one of 27 states in which prison populations dropped during 2009. Next door, Indiana’s 5.4 percent increase led the 23 states with rising state prison populations. Neighboring states Iowa, Kentucky and Wisconsin all saw decreases, while Missouri saw an increase.

“The tremendous variation among growth rates in the states shines a bright light on the role that state policy plays in determining the size and cost of the prison system,” Pew says.

The report attributes much of the overall nationwide decrease to a new approach catching on in state criminal justice systems: community-based treatment options as alternatives to prison. Rather than send low-risk and nonviolent offenders to prison, many states like Illinois now fund treatment centers to provide counseling for drug and alcohol abuse, behavioral problems, family conflict and more.

“States began to realize they could effectively reduce their prison populations, and save public funds, without sacrificing public safety,” Pew says. “In the past few years, several states, including those with the largest population declines, have enacted reforms to get taxpayers a better return on their public safety dollars.”

Despite the drop in the state prison population nationwide, Pew reports that the total number of prisoners in the nation increased in 2009, due to 6,838 more inmates entering the federal prison system. That 3.4 percent increase raises the federal prison population to an all-time high of 208,118 inmates, Pew says.

“The federal prison population has grown at a far faster rate than has the state prison population, more than doubling since 1995,” Pew says. “No matter what happens in the short term, with more than 1.6 million people currently in state and federal prisons and more than 700,000 additional people in local jails,” Pew says, “the United States will continue to lead the world in incarceration for the foreseeable future.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.
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