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Fewer Prisoners, Less Crime: A Tale of Three States

Three states – New York, New Jersey, and California – have reduced their prison populations by about 25% while seeing their crime rates generally decline at a faster pace than the national average.

Related to: Sentencing Reform, Incarceration

Although the pace of criminal justice reform has accelerated at both the federal and state levels in the past decade, current initiatives have had only a modest effect on the size of the prison population. But over this period, three states – New York, New Jersey, and California – have achieved prison population reductions in the range of 25%. They have also seen their crime rates generally decline at a faster pace than the national average.

Key findings:

  • New York and New Jersey led the nation by reducing their prison populations by 26% between 1999 and 2012, while the nationwide state prison population increased by 10%.
  • California downsized its prison population by 23% between 2006 and 2012. During this period, the nationwide state prison population decreased by just 1%.
  • During their periods of decarceration, violent crime rates fell at a greater rate in these three states than they did nationwide. Between 1999-2012, New York and New Jersey’s violent crime rate fell by 31% and 30%, respectively, while the national rate decreased by 26%. Between 2006-2012, California’s violent crime rate drop of 21% exceeded the national decline of 19%.
  • Property crime rates also decreased in New York and New Jersey more than they did nationwide, while California’s reduction was slightly lower than the national average. Between 1999-2012, New York’s property crime rate fell by 29% and New Jersey’s by 31%, compared to the national decline of 24%. Between 2006-2012, California’s property crime drop of 13% was slightly lower than the national reduction of 15%.
  • These prison population reductions have come about through a mix of changes in policy and practice designed to reduce admissions to prison and lengths of stay. The experiences of these states reinforce that criminal justice policies, and not crime rates, are the prime drivers of changes in prison populations. They also demonstrate that it is possible to substantially reduce prison populations without harming public safety.

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About the Authors

  • Marc Mauer

    Senior Advisor

    Marc Mauer is the former executive director of The Sentencing Project and one of the country’s leading experts on sentencing policy, race and the criminal justice system.

    Read more about Marc
  • Nazgol Ghandnoosh, Ph.D.

    Senior Research Analyst

    Nazgol Ghandnoosh, Ph.D., conducts and synthesizes research on criminal justice policies. She has written about racial disparities in the justice system, public opinion about punishment, and the scope of reform efforts. 

    Read more about Nazgol

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