The first national decline in prison populations in nearly four decades was even smaller than was announced by federal officials last month.
Georgia has corrected its 2010 decline to 848 inmates from an initially reported 4,207. That means the decline in the number of prisoners nationwide initially listed by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) as 9,228, or -0.6 percent, actually was less than 6,000, or only -0.2 percent, of a total prison population of more than 1.6 million.
Malcolm Young, a sentencing expert at Northwestern University law school's Bluhm Legal Clinic who analyzed the national decline in an essay for The Crime Report this week, says the counting error appeared to reflect a change in methodology used by Georgia to account for the state's inmates being held temporarily in local jails— a distinction often not understood by the public.
In reporting on his essay for TCR, Young noted the decrease originally reported to BJS by the Georgia Department of Corrections was inconsistent with the department's monthly population reports.
In general, prisons house people sentenced to terms of one year or more, and jails house both those sentenced to less than a year and defendants awaiting trial.
But in many states, some convicts who have been sentenced to state prison terms must stay in local jails until there is room for them in state facilities. Young observed that according to Georgia's published reports, Georgia housed in local jails as many as 6,000 persons sentenced for felonies who normally would be sent to state prisons.
A change one way or the other in the way the total number of these inmates are reported to BJS could significantly increase or decrease the state's reported prisoner population. In addition, BJS noted that because of a data system conversion in Georgia, the state's prisoner counts for 2009 and 2010 “may not compare” to previous years.
Georgia had become aware of anomalies in its reporting last month and sent corrected data to BJS and The Crime Report.
High prison populations remain a major concern for Georgia policymakers. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported this week that the Georgia legislature will soon consider whether to send fewer drug- and property-crime offenders to prison.
The newspaper said that a state council on criminal justice reform, comprised of judges, legislators, and other officials, estimated that the state prison population could increase by 8 percent to almost 60,000 by 2016 if current policies remained in place.
Young believes that the issue of how to count prison and jail inmates will arise in other states as they reconsider their penal policies. California, under court order to cut its state prison population by more than 30,000, is sending many defendants who previously would have been sentenced to state prison to county jails instead.
Future counts of California state prisoners presumably will decline. But to get a full picture in this and other states, Young said, analysts also must be able to track accurately the number of people held in local jails. The change in Georgia's numbers does not change Young's analysis in The Crime Report this week that it is not clear whether the national decline in prison populations will accelerate.
Ted Gest is President of Criminal Justice Journalists and Contributing Editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.