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Holy Shank! Prisoners Are Big Winners of This Recession

We’ve heard a lot about the losers from state budget cuts but here’s an unlikely winner: state prisoners.

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The number of prisoners held in state prisons dropped for the first time in 40 years in 2009, according to a survey by the Pew Center on the States.

As of Jan. 1, there were 1.4 million people being held in state prisons, down 0.4 percent from a year earlier.

It’s not because crime was down but because states are getting creative in cutting costs: They’re letting more prisoners off early for good behavior and sentencing fewer low-level offenders and probation and parole violators to prison time.

Prior to 1973, there were nearly four decades of uninterrupted growth in the prison population as sentences got stiffer and more offenders were sent to prison, the survey shows.

Call it the prison bubble. And now …

POP! POP! POP!

Despite being the smallest state in the U.S., Rhode Island has the distinction of having the biggest drop in its prison population at 9.2 percent — probably because they were one of the states with the biggest fiscal problems. The decline was mostly attributed to early-release programs.

Fun little factoid about Rhode Island: Their state motto is “Hope.” I think I speak for the entire state population when I say – I sure hope this early-release thing works out.

An “honorable mention” goes to Mississippi, where lawmakers reduced the mandatory time served for nonviolent offenders to just 25 percent from 85 percent, resulting in the early release of more than 3,000 prisoners.

Mississippi’s unofficial state motto is “Valor and Arms.” I think I speak for much of the population when I say, I hope this early-release thing results in more of the former and less of the latter in light of this demographic shift.

Rounding out the top five list of states with the biggest percentage declines were Michigan, Maryland and New Hampshire.

Michigan’s motto is “If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you” and Maryland’s is “Strong Deeds, Gentle Words.” Perhaps the most fitting is New Hampshire, whose motto is “Live Free or Die.”

Texas wasn’t in the top five in percentage terms, though they were in absolute terms — More than 1,200 inmates were removed from state prisons last year. Of course, they are one of the states with the highest execution rates, so I'll let you do the math.

Congratulations to all the winners! I hope you live free with strong deeds (not too strong, though), gentle words and much valor.

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