Jerry Kopel

Wisconsin Next


April 24, 2010

By Jerry Kopel


Maryland won the battle and Colorado lost.

Neither state probably knew of the battle. But for several decades Maryland's annual count of persons confined to Maryland's state prisons had placed them 22d in the nation's gross prison population.

As the annual count entered the 21st century, the continued increase in Colorado state prisoners took us from 25th to 23rd. And as the years passed Colorado came closer and closer to overtaking Maryland.

The contest became "serious" in 2004. Maryland held 23,276 state prisoners vs. Colorado with 20,841. While Maryland numbers remained steady, Colorado continued to close the gap.

If you looked at U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics you will likely not find the number of state prisoners as of Dec. 31, 2009. You will find the numbers of prisoners as of Dec. 1, 2008.

But when numbers are collected, there are people and organizations who can determine what they mean. State prisoners numbers as of Dec. 31, 2009 were collected and made available by the Public Safety Performance Project of the Pew Center On the States in partnership with the Association of State Correction Administrators.

I had originally attempted to find the 2009 numbers by phoning the Colorado prison statistic office. I kept getting different Colorado totals depending on who I spoke to. The number I settled on of 22,661 was incorrect. The Pew Center number was 22,795. Maryland dropped from 23,324 to 22,009 and into 23rd place. Colorado increased to 22d highest prison population.

On state prison percentage population reduction Maryland came in third, but when you sweep away New Hampshire (-173) and Rhode Island (-371), Maryland comes in second, a 5.6 percent drop of 1,315 prisoners.

First was Michigan showing 3,260 fewer prisoners, a 6.7 percent drop. Mississippi fell 5.4 percent with 1,233 fewer prisoners.

Nine of the 50 states hold slightly more than half of the state prisoners. The nine are Texas, 171, 249; California, 169,413; Florida, 103,915; New York, 58,648; Georgia, 53,562; Penn., 51,429; Ohio, 51,606; Michigan, 45, 478, and Illinois, 45,161.

Overall state prison totals were 4,777 fewer than the Dec.31,2008 total of 1,408,830. This reduction was the first in 38 years to have a smaller state prison population than in the preceding year.

Colorado now has to worry about climbing from 22d to 21st in a battle with Wisconsin, which had 23,112 prisoners or 317 more than Colorado as of Dec. 31, 2009. To Colorado's credit, the state was 9th best in prison population reduction during 2009.

Why the drop in state prison population? The Pew Center gives a lot of credit to how parole revocations are now treated when mostly technical violations. Immediately holding violators in prison shows them the state "means it".

Community-based treatment and diversion programs helped in Texas, as did shortened probation times. Nevada provides credits for education, vocation and abuse treatment. Mississippi reduced the nonviolent offender time actually spent in prison. Other useful tools: development of more accurate risk assessment, polls taken supporting alternatives to prison, and focus on cost-benefit analysis.

But Pew Center found the budget pressure played the big starting role. "Corrections cost has quadrupled in just the past 20 years and now account for one of every state general fund discretion dollar. Correction has been the second fastest growing category of state budgets behind only Medicaid and nearly 90 percent of that spending has gone to prisons."

Pew writers claim "No matter what happens in the short term, the United States will continue to lead the world in incarcerations for the foreseeable future".

(Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the Colorado House.)

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