The United States has the largest prison population in the world. More than 2.2 million Americans live behind bars — one out of every 100 citizens — and in many states, prisons have become a critical part of the economy. So critical, in fact, that some states find it hard to balance their budgets when the inmate population drops.
In 2014, faced with the country’s second-largest inmate population and overcrowded prisons, Mississippi enacted comprehensive, bipartisan prison reform legislation. With more than 17,000 of its citizens behind bars, the state was experiencing devastating consequences to its taxpayers, society and families and children. House Bill 585, also known as Right on Crime, has led to a 15 percent reduction in the state’s prison population, reduced recidivism rates and savings to taxpayers of $266 million over 10 years. States like Alabama are looking at the reform bill as a model for their own prison-related problems.
Meanwhile, changes to sentencing guidelines and reduced sentences for drug-related crimes have led to a drop in the prison population. Between 2002 and 2012, Mississippi increased average sentence length by 28 percent, with nearly half of the inmate population serving time for nonviolent offenses. Now, with drug sentencing guidelines changing across the country, and an emphasis on alternative sentencing for nonviolent offenders, fewer prisoners are coming into a system that had more than quadrupled in the past 30 years.
Regional and county prisons have lost about 20 percent of their inmates to state facilities, and three regional work centers have closed in the past year due to dropping numbers of
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