Some State Prison Populations Again on the Rise

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An epidemic of opiate addiction and a handful of high-profile crimes have set back efforts by some states to restrain prison populations, the Wall Street Journal reports. In Arkansas, Republican and Democratic lawmakers in 2011 passed a landmark law to reduce harsh drug sentences, as a way to curb costs from overcrowded prisons. The prison population dropped 10 percent in two years. In 2013, a man who had been released from prison and arrested several times while on parole carjacked and fatally shot an 18-year-old man. In response, state officials tightened parole policies, and authorities put parolees back behind bars for violating the terms of their release as fast as they could, said Dina Tyler, a deputy director at the agency overseeing parole in Arkansas.  “It was a natural reaction because something bad happened, and we don’t want it to happen again, so we’ll scoop them all up,” said Tyler.

The result: Arkansas’s prisons are more crowded than they were before the 2011 legislation. As of late August, the number of prisoners had risen to 18,243, a 25 percent increase from 2012. Similar reversals have occurred in a handful of other states in recent years, exposing the fragility of an effort to curb prison growth and focus resources on keeping offenders from returning to crime. “It just takes one incident to get things tracking in a different direction,” said James Austin of the JFA Institute, a criminal-justice research group that works for Arkansas and other states to forecast prison-population trends. Data from 2007 to 2014, the most recent year analyzed by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, shows that at least five states—Arkansas, Hawaii, Kentucky, New Hampshire and Ohio—saw their incarcerated populations fall or stabilize after passing criminal-justice legislation only to see them rise again. Incarceration rates also rebounded in most of those states, and in others that passed laws targeting prison growth, including Arizona and Wisconsin, after dropping initially. The percentage of U.S. adults under correctional supervision dropped 13 percent from 2007 to 2014, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts analysis of federal statistics. Even in states where incarceration increased, officials and criminal-justice experts say such laws have helped slow prison growth, averting millions of dollars in prison costs.

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