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Prison population dropped for 3rd consecutive year in the U.S. but still world´s largest jailer.

The United States remains the world’s largest jailer, with 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of its prisoners.

However, the prison population in the United States dropped in 2012 for the third consecutive year, according to federal statistics released on Thursday, in what criminal justice experts said was the biggest decline in the nation’s recent history, signaling a shift away from an almost four-decade policy of mass imprisonment.

The number of inmates in state and federal prisons decreased by 1.7 percent, to an estimated 1,571,013 in 2012 from 1,598,783 in 2011, according to figures released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, an arm of the Justice Department. Although the percentage decline appeared small, the fact that it followed decreases in 2011 and 2010 offers persuasive evidence of what some experts say is a “sea change” in America’s approach to criminal punishment.

“This is the beginning of the end of mass incarceration,” said Natasha Frost, associate dean of Northeastern University’s school of criminology and criminal justice.READ MORE HERE

Most observers agree that the recession has played a role in shrinking prison populations. In 2011 and 2012, at least 17 states closed or were considering closing prisons partly for budgetary reasons, representing a reduction of 28,525 beds, according to a report by the Sentencing Project published last year.

But Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ public safety performance project, said that while fiscal concerns might have led to the turnaround in some states, the need to cut budgets had not been the deciding factor.

Changes in state and federal sentencing laws for lower-level offenses like those involving drugs have played a central role in the shift, he and others said, with many states setting up diversion programs for offenders as an alternative to prison. And some states have softened their policies on parole, no longer automatically sending people back to prison for parole violations.

But changing public attitudes are also a major driver behind the declining prison numbers. Dropping crime rates over the last 20 years have reduced public fears and diminished the interest of politicians in running tough-on-crime campaigns. And public polls consistently show that Americans are now more interested in spending money on education and health care than on building more prisons.

Recently on July 29th, Linda Gibbs (deputy mayor for health and human services) and Vincent N. Schiraldi  (commissioner of the Department of Probation) send a letter to the Editor of The New York Times where they sustain that while the prison population in the United States decreased by 1.7 percent in the last year and that is certainly good news,  the policy makers and everyday Americans must realize that it is possible to achieve even greater incarceration declines without putting public safety in danger.

Gibbs and Schiraldi said that since 2001, New York City’s incarceration rate has plummeted by 32 percent even as the major felony crime rate declined at the same rate. In few words, New York City has proved that you don’t need to put more people in jail in order to achieve safer streets. Gibbs and Schiraldi also stated that with the right set of policies in place, the opposite is true, that is less people in jail can be linked to a safer City.

How can other jurisdictions achieve similar results, asked Schiraldi and Gibbs? They say that there is no single solution; it comes down to relying less on incarceration and more on carrying out a data-driven network of programs and policies, including proactive policing, early interventions and community-based programs focused on providing people with the tools and opportunities they need to break the cycle of crime.