Downsizing Prisons

March 11, 2011 • Volume 21, Issue 10
Should nonviolent inmates be incarcerated?
By Peter Katel


Overcrowded Chino State Prison in California (Getty Images/Kevork Djansezian)
Overcrowded Chino State Prison in California uses a gymnasium as a dormitory. Last year federal judges ordered the state to reduce its prison population. Now the U.S. Supreme Court is deciding whether judges can order inmates released from prisons where crowding endangers prisoners and staff. (Getty Images/Kevork Djansezian)

Budget crises are forcing states to re-examine the cost of maintaining their prison and jail systems, which incarcerate more than 2 million people, the biggest national prison population in the world. Politicians are divided on whether states should downsize their prison populations by changing parole policies and liberalizing some criminal laws, such as those governing drug offenses. Proponents of downsizing, including conservative Republicans such as potential GOP presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich, argue that states have been putting too many low-risk offenders in prison. They contend that expanding alternatives to incarceration would reduce prison costs and lower crime rates. But many prosecutors point to a sharp drop in crime in recent years as evidence that prison works. Lowering incarceration rates, they contend, would put society at greater risk of rising criminal activity — and eventually, rising costs to imprison a new wave of offenders.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Apr. 12, 2019  Bail Reform
Oct. 19, 2018  For-Profit Prisons
Mar. 03, 2017  Women in Prison
Jan. 10, 2014  Sentencing Reform
Sep. 14, 2012  Solitary Confinement
Mar. 11, 2011  Downsizing Prisons
Dec. 04, 2009  Prisoner Reentry
Apr. 06, 2007  Prison Reform
Jan. 05, 2007  Prison Health Care
Sep. 17, 1999  Prison-Building Boom
Feb. 04, 1994  Prison Overcrowding
Oct. 20, 1989  Crime and Punishment: a Tenuous Link
Aug. 04, 1989  Can Prisons Rehabilitate Criminals?
Aug. 07, 1987  Prison Crowding
Nov. 25, 1983  Prison Overcrowding
Feb. 26, 1982  Religious Groups and Prison Reform
Jun. 18, 1976  Criminal Release System
Mar. 12, 1976  Reappraisal of Prison Policy
Oct. 20, 1971  Racial Tensions in Prisons
Oct. 13, 1965  Rehabilitation of Prisoners
Oct. 09, 1957  Prisons and Parole
May 02, 1952  Penal Reform
Jan. 30, 1937  The Future of Prison Industry
May 08, 1930  Prison Conditions and Penal Reform
State, Local, and Intergovernmental Relations