Declining Prisoner Count Issue: What To Do With Empty, Underutilized Jails


Faced with projections of rising crime, Portland, Or., residents voted in 1996 to build a new jail. By the time the cavernous structure was completed in 2004, crime had fallen, leaving the city and neighboring towns that make up Multnomah County with an empty jail that cost more than $300,000 annually to maintain, reports the Wall Street Journal. This year, the county began trying to sell the 155,000-square-foot property, but thus far has received little interest from private developers. “We got stuck with the albatross,” said county spokesman David Austin.

The story illustrates an awkward byproduct of the declining U.S. inmate population: empty or under-utilized prisons and jails that must be cared for but can't be easily sold or repurposed. “There's a prisoner shortage,” said Mike Arismendez, city manager of Littlefield, Tx. “Everybody finds it hard to believe.” Littlefield, population 6,400, has had to raise taxes to service its $8 million in debt outstanding on a prison empty since 2009. After rising rapidly for decades, the population behind bars peaked in 2009. Prison population stood at 1.57 million in 2013, down 2.7 percent from 1.62 million in 2009, says the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. While the count rose slightly last year, many experts believe the incarceration rate will continue falling.

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