According to Wikipedia, the United States has the greatest number of prisoners, per capita, of any nation in the world. However, news reports this week indicate that, next year, for perhaps the first time in 40 years, the number of prisoners in this country may actually drop. What is the reason for this abrupt change? Are judges getting soft? Has our criminal justice system developed new, innovative sentencing options which account for fewer defendants getting incarcerated? I'm afraid not!
Perhaps new sentencing alternatives are contributing a little bit to fewer incarcerations by sentencing judges. For instance, drug courts are now a popular, fairly new innovation which result in more probationary sentences. But drug courts still are not in vogue everywhere and do not account for the drop in prisoner numbers.
As I have promoted before in this blog, I wish states would also use diversion centers to house more of their non-violent offenders. Diversion centers cost a lot less than prisons and offer a more constructive alternative, especially for white collar crime offenders. By using diversion centers more, and by housing fewer inmates behind bars, states could save money, defendants could get jobs, and victims could get restitution. But diversion centers and other alternative sentencing ideas are not the reason for the drop in prisoner numbers.
The real reason for the slight expected drop in prisoner numbers is..........state budget problems. As states, such as California, are struggling to keep their budgetary heads above water, they are looking at other sentencing options, and even at widespread early prisoner releases, to help control costs.
So, while our states and our criminal justice system still generally "don't get it," when it comes to meaningful reform, the number of prisoners is actually about to go down. You decide whether or not that is a good thing. In my opinion, until true reform occurs, (with more drug courts and diversion centers), the statistics don't really mean a thing.