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Emptier prisons: Inmate population drops for first time in 40 years

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Driven by budget crises, many states have pursued alternative strategies to reduce their prison populations. Among them are moves to divert low-level offenders and probation and parole violators from prison and to accelerate the release of inmates who complete risk-reduction programs.

"More and more policymakers are realizing that new technologies and strategies are more effective and less expensive than warehousing somebody in a $30,000-a-year taxpayer-funded prison cell," says Adam Gelb, director of the public safety performance project of the Pew Center on the States.

Of the 26 states whose prison populations fell, Rhode Island had the largest drop – 9.2 percent between 2008 and 2009.

Rhode Island policymakers worked with the Pew Center and the US Justice Department to outline three policies to reduce prison spending. The state spends an average of $40,000 per inmate, per year.

The first policy cuts an inmate's sentence – by as much as 10 days per month – for following institution rules.

Another further trims sentences for inmates participating in programs designed to reduce recidivism, such as job training and anger management.

Also, criteria used to determine how likely an offender is to reoffend is part of deciding parole.

The results were immediate, says Mr. Wall.

The average population of the prison dropped by 87 prisoners from the previous year, and 81 percent of the 4,278 people who completed prison terms during fiscal year 2009 had their sentences reduced by the new earned-time laws.

"We've probably resolved [overcrowding] for the foreseeable future," Wall says.

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