from the supply-and-demand dept.
After rising rapidly for decades, the number of people behind bars peaked at 1.62 Million in 2009, has been mostly falling ever since down, and many justice experts believe the incarceration rate will continue on a downward trajectory for many years. New York, for example, saw an 8.8% decline in federal and state inmates, and California, saw a 20.6% drop. Now the WSJ reports on an awkward byproduct of the declining U.S. inmate population: empty or under-utilized prisons and jails that must be cared for but can’t be easily sold or repurposed. New York state has closed 17 prisons and juvenile-justice facilities since 2011, following the rollback of the 1970s-era Rockefeller drug laws, which mandated lengthy sentences for low-level offenders. So far, the state has found buyers for 10 of them, at prices that range from less than $250,000 to about $8 million for a facility in Staten Island, often a fraction of what they cost to build. “There’s a prisoner shortage,” says Mike Arismendez, city manager for Littlefield, Texas, home of an empty five-building complex that sleeps 383 inmates and comes with a gym, maintenence shed, armory, and parking lot . “Everybody finds it hard to believe.”
The incarceration rate is declining largely because crime has fallen significantly in the past generation. In addition, many states have relaxed harsh sentencing laws passed during the tough-on-crime 1980s and 1990s, and have backed rehabilitation programs, resulting in fewer low-level offenders being locked up. States from Michigan to New Jersey have changed parole processes, leading more prisoners to leave earlier. On a federal level, the Justice Department under Attorney General Eric Holder has pushed to reduce sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. Before 2010, the U.S. prison population increased every year for 30 years, from 307,276 in 1978 to a high of 1,615,487 in 2009. “This is the beginning of the end of mass incarceration,” says Natasha Frost. "People don’t care so much about crime, and it’s less of a political focus."