A combination of falling crime rates, softer sentences for low-level, nonviolent offenders, and a dwindling appetite for hefty prison budgets has begun to whittle away at the number of people behind bars. The Wall Street Journal says that allows some states to do what a few years ago seemed unthinkable: close prisons. The National Conference of State Legislatures says that 35 adult correctional facilities in 15 states have closed in the past two years, and governors in states including Pennsylvania, New York and Illinois are pushing for more closures this year.
“This is the first time we’ve really seen so many states moving to close so many prisons so fast,” said Tracy Huling of the Open Society Foundations, a liberal advocacy group. Corrections unions and community leaders worry about job losses and say a result could be overcrowding in the prisons that remain. Cash-strapped states are turning to corrections budgets in search of cuts. From 1982 through 2001, state corrections budgets more than tripled to a peak of $53.5 billion, says the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Now, spending is 9 percent below that level. In Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn aims to close four adult and three youth corrections facilities to save $70 million. Still, it isn’t clear whether the nation’s total prison count is shrinking.