STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
A report from the Justice Department suggests that for the first time in decades, fewer Americans are being sent to prison. Now, the country's inmate population has been growing quickly since the '70s. But surveys of state and Federal prisons nationwide show the number of inmates actually declined over the last three years - the first downward trend in a generation. North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports.
BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: I'm standing outside the rusted metal gate of Camp Gabriels, a minimum security prison in northern New York that closed in 2011. This entryway that inmates used to keep neat and tidy is dotted now with weeds. Prisons like this one were built fast during the 40-year expansion of America's state and Federal corrections system, when inmate population exploded from a few hundred thousand to move than two million.
But a survey by the Justice Department shows that in 2010 and again 2011, the total number of inmates nationwide actually dipped for the first time. Adam Gelb is with the Pew Center's Public Safety Performance Project, a group that works with state agencies to help them cut inmate populations.
ADAM GELB: It's a really big deal. Those of us who follow this thought that the corrections population was going to keep rising and rising almost forever, defying the laws of physics.
MANN: Gelb says the declines so far are modest, with the total number of prison inmates down by about one percent. Still, observers say the country is finally reaping the benefit of lower crime rates, which have been dropping in most of the U.S. since the 1990s. At the same time, many state lawmakers who were once tough on crime are now battling big deficits.
That means more states backing away from lengthy mandatory sentences, especially for nonviolent drug crimes. And California - with one of the country's largest prison systems -- has been scrambling to meet a Federal court mandate to cut prison overcrowding.
PETER WAGNER: I think we definitely are at a different moment.
MANN: Peter Wagner is with a group called the Prison Policy Initiative. He says the fact that even red states like Texas are shrinking prison populations means the national conversation about crime and punishment has shifted.
WAGNER: When I started looking at this 12 years ago, the idea of dropping prison populations in any particular state would be met with laughter. Today it's something that lots of big states are doing, even very conservative states.
MANN: The trend can produce big dividends. According to one study, six states were planning to close prisons last year, saving taxpayers more than $300 million. But closing prisons is controversial, especially in the hundreds of rural communities across the U.S., places like Beacon, New York that have come to rely on the incarceration industry for jobs.
REPRESENTATIVE TERRY GIPSON: The actual hit to the Beacon economy will be severe.
MANN: That's New York state Senator Terry Gipson. He spoke with YNN television earlier this year after learning that a prison in his district will be mothballed, costing more than a hundred high-paying jobs. But while some prisons are closing, producing a net decline in inmate populations -- the momentum of mass-incarceration in America hasn't vanished entirely.
The latest surveys show the number of inmates still rising in roughly half the states. And Pew's Adam Gelb points out that the biggest player, the Federal prison system, is also still expanding.
GELB: There really isn't a move in Congress to take a look at the sentencing laws and other policies and procedures that could head it off.
MANN: While states were cutting the number of people behind bars the last few years, the Federal system grew by nearly 10,000 inmates, with half the Federal inmate population now made up of nonviolent offenders. For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann in New York.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
INSKEEP: It's NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.