In the wake of a prison boom that saw both record construction and an explosion in the U.S. prison population, states are for the first time starting to reverse course. In the past two years, 35 prisons have closed in 15 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. While the closures are uneven, difficult to measure, and mark only a marginal change to a U.S. mass incarceration system that locks up far more of its own than any other country in the world, experts say the burst of activity signifies a change of course in criminal justice reform.
Among the reforms that prompted the closures are increased use of the supervised parole system, revised sentencing under New York’s Rockefeller Drug Laws and a removal of Connecticut’s disparity between sentences for crack and cocaine. Many states facing increasingly tight budgets and skyrocketing prison costs have moved toward prison reform by necessity, and these prison closures track a slight decrease in the state’s prison population over the last two years. But this decline was attributed in large part to the U.S. Supreme Court’s mandate that California drastically reduce the population of its overcrowded prisons. And while the rate of prison closures is unprecedented, some other states are opening new prisons. In fact, as of 2010, 25 states still had stable or increasing populations, according to the Sentencing Project. The organization explains in a December 2012 report:
Encouraging as is the opportunity offered by reducing state prison populations, the scale of incarceration should not be forgotten. Most states continue to employ a range of mandatory sentencing policies, make drug arrests in record numbers, and frequently enact practices that extend the length of time that persons spend in prison.
The reality that states have been able to close prisons without compromising public safety offers an opening to assess the prospects for reducing the scale of incarceration. The public will benefit from a new strategy that moves beyond “tough on crime” rhetoric and towards a vision that strengthens resources and communities.
What’s more, a huge component of the U.S. mass incarceration problem is the federal prison system, where the population has spiked 790 percent since 1980. Thus far, the federal government has not taken up the sorts of reforms many states are now considering, although Senate Judiciary Chair Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and several members of Congress have identified sentencing and drug law reform as a priority. It is not just Congress that could implement meaningful reform. Federal judges bound by harsh mandatory minimum sentences and U.S. sentencing guidelines have urged the U.S. Sentencing Commission to amend its outdated and counterproductive guidelines, and federal prosecutors to use their discretion in both charging and sentencing.