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U.S. Prison Populations Decline, Reflecting New Approach To Crime

Publication Date: 
July 25, 2013
Source: 
The New York Times - U.S.
Author: 
Erica Goode

Professor Joan Petersilia was quoted in a New York Times article by Erica Goode about the nation's shift away from mass imprisonment and California's role as an example for other states.

The prison population in the United States dropped in 2012 for the third consecutive year, according to federal statistics released on Thursday, in what criminal justice experts said was the biggest decline in the nation's recent history, signaling a shift away from an almost four-decade policy of mass imprisonment.

The number of inmates in state and federal prisons decreased by 1.7 percent, to an estimated 1,571,013 in 2012 from 1,598,783 in 2011, according to figures released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, an arm of the Justice Department. Although the percentage decline appeared small, the fact that it followed decreases in 2011 and 2010 offers persuasive evidence of what some experts say is a "sea change" in America's approach to criminal punishment.

...

Joan Petersilia, a law professor at Stanford and a co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, said in an interview last year that she thought Americans had "gotten the message that locking up a lot of people doesn’t necessarily bring public safety." California's example, she said, has also spurred other states to consider downsizing for fear of facing similar litigation.

But Professor Petersilia added that though the trend may have begun out of a need for belt-tightening, it had grown into a national effort to rethink who should go to prison and for how long.

"I don't think in modern history we’ve seen anything like this," she said.