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Since 2011, at least 22 states have closed or announced closures for 94 state prisons and juvenile facilities, resulting in the elimination of over 48,000 state prison beds1 and an estimated cost savings of over $345 million.2 The opportunity to downsize prison bed space has been brought about by declines in state prison populations as well as increasing challenges of managing older facilities. Reduced capacity has created the opportunity to repurpose closed prisons for a range of uses outside of the correctional system, including a movie studio, a distillery, and urban redevelopment.
The U.S. prison population numbered 1,508,636 at yearend 2014 – a reduction of approximately 1% since 2013. Thirty-nine states have experienced a decline since reaching their peak prison populations within the past 15 years; in most states this reduction has been relatively modest. Four states – New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and California – have reduced their prison populations by over 20%. Southern states like Mississippi and South Carolina have reduced their prison populations by 18% and 11% respectively.3 The political environment shaping criminal justice policy has been moving in a direction emphasizing evidence-based approaches to public safety for more than a decade. This has involved efforts to address the unprecedented growth and correctional costs resulting from several decades of policy initiatives.
In recent years, 29 states adopted reforms that scaled back the scope and severity of their mandatory sentencing policies.4 Voters in California approved ballot initiatives in 2012 and 2016; the former curbed the state’s notoriously broad “three strikes and you’re out” law and the latter expanded parole eligibility and limits the process governing juveniles tried as adults. California and Oklahoma voters also authorized reclassifying certain felonies as misdemeanors. In other states, policymakers have become increasingly supportive of initiatives that reduce parole revocations, establish treatment courts, and divert prison bound defendants through alternatives to incarceration.
State prison closures documented based on information requests and public reports.
Estimate based on projected savings from states that disclosed this information.
Nazgol Ghandnoosh. U.S. Prison Population Trends 1999-2014: Broad Variation Among States in Recent Years. (The Sentencing Project 2016).
Ram Subramanian and Ruth Delaney. Playbook for Change? States Reconsider Mandatory Sentences. (Vera Institute of Justice 2014).