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New Jersey Reduces Number of Prisoners

New Jersey has been a leader in reducing its prison population in the past few years. In the years since 2000, New Jersey's prison population has declined by 20.6 percent, or 6,486 inmates. However, most other states have seen increases in the number of people incarcerated, with Illinois leading the pack with an increase of 3,257 prisoners in 2010, or an annual increase of 7.2 percent.

The 2010 increase in Illinois' prison population occurred after lawmakers had agreed in 2009 to focus on reducing the number of people in the state prison system. The governor signed laws that were intended to accomplish this goal. However, political opportunism, sensationalist reporting and inaccurate news coverage resulted in a backlash against an "early release program" that had made it possible for 1,700 inmates to be released an average of 37 days early. The governor and legislature were charged by critics with endangering public safety.

New Jersey, despite Gov. Christie's well-publicized signing of legislation cancelling so-called early release programs, has continued to reduce its prison population. This has been the result of numerous factors that include:

• A 1999 lawsuit by prison inmates over the state's backlog in parole hearings

• Changes in the law mandating automatic revocation of parole for minor violations

• A campaign for Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) to revise punitive drug crime laws that mandated lengthy sentences for minor drug possession convictions

• Changes in prosecutors' plea bargaining practices

Although New Jersey, Michigan and New York have succeeded in reducing their prison populations, most other states have continued to increase the number of inmates in their prisons.  This comes at a time when economics, if nothing else, should dictate that state governments look at the growing cost associated withg keeping so many people behind bars. 

Source: The Crime Report, "Getting Prison Numbers Down-For Good", by Malcolm C. Young, Jan. 1, 2012.

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