The first reduction in state prison populations in 38 years was hailed as a big win Thursday by the world's largest outreach to prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families.
"This reduction has come about partly because the states have rightly decided to reserve costly prison space for violent prisoners and provide alternative sentences for low-risk offenders," said Mark Earley, president of Prison Fellowship. "If we come together now to tackle our nation's prisoner re-entry crisis, we can make the public safer, save taxpayer dollars and continue to see a decline in the prison population."
According to the Pew Center on the States' recently released report, "Prison Count 2010," there were 1,403,091 people under the jurisdiction of state prison authorities in January of this year - 5,739 fewer than on Dec. 31, 2008. That marks the first year-to-year drop in the nation's state prison population since 1972.
"After so many years on the rise, any size drop is notable," commented Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Center on the States' Public Safety Performance Project.
"The decline is happening for several reasons, but an important contributor is that states began to realize there are research-based ways they can cut their prison populations while continuing to protect public safety," he added. "In the past few years, several states have enacted reforms designed to get taxpayers a better return on their public safety dollars."
Expounding on Gelb's comments, Pat Nolan, a vice president at Prison Fellowship, said the important point of the lower numbers in the Pew study is not simply that states can save money by lowering the number of people in custody, but that communities will be safer when ex-offenders are transformed before they return.
For its part in the effort, Prison Fellowship has launched a national prisoner re-entry movement called Out4Life, which creates state-wide coalitions of Departments of Corrections, churches, businesses, social service providers and others to address the keys to successful ex-prisoners' re-entry – changed lives and the ability to find jobs, housing, needed social services and mentors.
Prison Fellowship also tackles prisoner re-entry through its InnerChange Freedom Initiative program. In prisons in five states, the program works with inmates who are within 18 months of release to help them prepare to become productive citizens rather than a public safety burden upon release. Graduates of the program are paired with mentors for at least 12 months following their release to help them stay out of trouble.
In addition, Justice Fellowship, Prison Fellowship's criminal justice reform program, advocates for reforms that provide effective sentencing options, ensure ample prison space for violent offenders and promote wise use of tax dollars.
Founded in 1976 by former Nixon aide Chuck Colson, Prison Fellowship provides ongoing support, recruitment, research, training, and resources to the more than 8,000 churches throughout the United States that are involved in organized prison ministry. It also works with thousands more individual volunteers who are active in an outreach to the prison population or inmate families.
Prison Fellowship programs reach prisoners, ex-prisoners, and families of prisoners in all 50 states and in 110 countries worldwide.