Last week Connecticut’s total prison and jail population dropped below 13,000 for the first time in 25 years. A brief history lesson will be helpful to appreciate the significance of this milestone.
Our state opened six new prisons during 1993 and 1994 as the phenomenon we now call “mass incarceration” accelerated here and around the nation. Three thousand beds of added capacity were immediately occupied, increasing the total inmate population from 11,000 to 14,000 seemingly overnight. Ten years earlier the average daily inmate population was just over 5,000. The peak population would come on February 1, 2008: 19,894 total incarcerated persons.
What accounts for a 35 percent drop in the incarcerated population over a decade? Less crime.
I am fully aware that many are skeptical of this claim, but the facts speak for themselves. Here are some of the indicators to help illustrate:
On a daily basis we can view the total incarcerated population for the Connecticut Department of Correction, including both sentenced and pretrial inmates. The steady downward trend could possibly be the result of more early releases of sentenced prisoners. However, we know that the total number of releases has actually been trending down, not up, since 2010. You might expect the prison population to grow if releases are down, but it turns out that the number of new admissions to prison and jail have been dropping at a greater rate than releases. Hence, the total continues to decline.
On a monthly basis we can view the total number of statewide arrests and see that these too have been dropping at about the same rate as the incarcerated population. Consider these facts: in 2009 there were a total of 124,249 statewide criminal arrests. In 2018 that number was 77,703, a 38 percent drop. Of course, it might be argued that police, for whatever reason, are using their discretion and simply not making arrests and, as a result, that fewer arrests is not an indicator of less crime. Fortunately, there is a way to measure reported crimes as opposed to arrests.
On an annual basis the FBI releases state-by-state reported “index” crime data. Index crimes are best described as crimes involving victims. Drug offenses, breaches of the peace, drunk driving, for example, are not index crimes. This annual Uniform Crime Report is the best way of measuring whether crime is increasing or decreasing. In 2009 there were 93,213 index crimes reported in Connecticut. In 2017, the last year for which we have FBI data, there were 71,689, a drop of 23 percent over nine years. The 2018 crime numbers will be released in September, but because we know that total arrests last year dropped by 4 percent compared to 2017, we can anticipate that reported crime will also drop by approximately 4 percent. For what it’s worth, total statewide arrests so far this year are down about 5 percent compared to last year, so it does seem as though fewer and fewer crimes are occurring in Connecticut with each passing year.
Given all of this data, it’s safe to assume that our prison population will continue to decline as crime drops. The central indicator underlying this prediction is the extraordinary drop in young adults, persons under 25 years of age, being arrested. For example, the number of 18-year-olds arrested last year was down 63 percent compared to 2009. As you might expect, the number of young adults in prison in our state has declined by about the same amount. Arrests and incarceration of older offenders had declined, but only slightly. Since the farm system for our prison system consists of younger men, I am confident that our Department of Correction will continue to shrink for the foreseeable future.
One final thought: former Gov. M. Jodi Rell closed one prison in 2010 and former Gov. Dannel Malloy closed four additional adult prisons, the only juvenile prison and major portions of three additional adult prisons as prison admissions dropped. The last closing, Enfield Correctional Institution, was announced on November 7, 2017. Since that date, the total inmate population has decreased by more than 1,100.
It may soon be time to close another facility.
Mike Lawlor is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of New Haven.
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