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State Incarceration Rates Falling

After nearly two decades of prison-population rise, evidence suggests a slowing trend. CELL BLOCK

AFTER years of cell-bursting growth, the pressure on some prison populations may finally be easing - with huge implications for governments and taxpayers alike.A number of states are seeing a slowing in the rate of new inmates being admitted to state institutions, due largely to a drop in drug arrests. If the trend holds, it could ease the overcrowding that in most systems has reached dangerous levels, spur changes in prisoner-release practices, and prompt states to scale back prison-construction programs. Spending on prisons is the second-fastest growing area of state finance, and 40 states are currently under some sort of court order to limit overcrowding. "There is no question that a trend is emerging," says Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, a nonprofit group in San Francisco. "It is very encouraging," says Tip Kindel of the California Department of Corrections. "For the first time in a long time, the population is stabilizing, which may help us get a handle on overcrowding."

California to Florida Although the drops in inmate admissions are not uniform across the country, they have been sudden and dramatic in some places, catching even prison administrators off guard: * Officials in California, where 102,000 inmates are housed in a system operating at 185 percent of capacity, estimate that admissions this year will be about one-half what they have been in recent years. * Florida saw a 14 percent drop in the number of new inmates entering its institutions last year. Because of that, the state has revised its five-year prison admissions forecast down by 55,000 inmates. * Illinois's admission rate suddenly plummeted in April. Planners are not sure why. But they hope it will relieve some of the pressure on a prison population that grew 21 percent in 1990 - the highest growth rate in the nation. "There definitely is a shift," says Nola Joyce, manager of planning and budgets for the Illinois Corrections Department. "The question is whether it is a temporary shift or a long-term trend," she says. None of this means that state prison populations are actually declining. Even in states where the number of people coming into the system has slowed, populations are rising. But they are not rising as fast. Populations are governed by the number of people going out as well as coming in, which means length of sentences, return rate of parolees, and other factors play a part. Still, if fewer new people are taking up bunks, that could help stabilize populations after an unprecedented surge in the United States that began in the mid-1970s. States seeing fewer inmates putting on prison blues attribute much of it to a drop in drug offenders coming up through the system. The Federal Bureau of Investigation reported in August that arrests for drug-abuse violations nationwide declined 14 percent in 1990 over 1989.

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Drug use, street sweeps In California in the first six months of this year, 18 percent fewer people entered the penal system for drug offenses than during the same period a year ago. Theories vary on why drug arrests are down: fewer people using drugs; police cutting back on massive street sweeps; lack of money at the local level to continue the crackdown on narcotics. Prison admissions may be down for others reasons as well, though. Partly because of overcrowded conditions in institutions, some states and judges have turned to intensive probation, house arrest, and other alternatives to traditional incarceration for nonviolent offenders. Franklin Zimring, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, notes that, if pressure on prison populations is easing, it should not be surprising. Incarceration rates have fluctuated throughout history. The US is currently in the midst of the longest and most intense prison population explosion ever, he says. By historic standards, the surge that began in 1975 should have ended several years ago, Mr. Zimring says. But tough attitudes toward law and order and the war on drugs have kept the number of inmates at the state and federal level rising at a record rate year after year. If the spiral has finally been broken, it is not yet evident in every state. Texas, for instance, has not seen a big drop in the number of new inmates coming into its system. In New York, prison admissions are up - even though drug arrests are down. Paul Korotkin, a planner with the New York Department of Correctional Services, attributes the rise to a backlog in the court system. Fifteen new judges were recently appointed in the state, and they are now helping to work through the crush of cases.

Prison management Other states, though, are clearly seeing encouraging signs. Besides Florida, Illinois, and California, the National Council on Crime and Delinquency reports that Michigan, Ohio, Kansas, Virginia, Tennessee, and Oklahoma are also reporting recent drops in prisoner admissions, among states it routinely monitors. If those patterns hold, that could eventually help bring populations down to manageable levels and alter prison practices. Florida, like many states, has had to release inmates early to reduce overcrowding. Prisoners there now serve on average only 30 percent of their term. "This means we will be able to keep violent criminals longer, and there will be less need for early release of all offenders," says Bob Macmaster of the Florida Department of Corrections. For California, fewer people coming in may mean less need for more bunks and barbed wire. The state is currently in the midst of the largest prison building program in the country. That plan is based on projections of the state's prison population reaching 163,000 by 1996. If the current drop in admissions holds, however, Mr. Kindel says that California could get by with three new prisons a year instead of six.

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