TALLAHASSEE | For the first time since 1984, Florida began the new budget year with a smaller prison population than in the prior year.
Florida’s prison population is now projected to dip below 100,000 by this fall and stay there for the next five years, according to a new criminal justice estimate. The population stood at 100,527 inmates on June 30, compared with 102,319 inmates at the end of June 2011, according to the Florida Department of Corrections. It is expected to average just above 99,000 inmates for the next five years.
The declining prison population is a sign of a dramatic decrease in Florida’s overall crime rate, which peaked in 1991, but has declined by more than half since then, according to analysis by Florida State University’s College of Criminology and Criminal Justice.
The major crimes index in 2011 was at its lowest point since 1984 and the crime rate is the lowest since 1971. Violent crimes, including murder, sexual assaults and robbery, decreased by 3.7 percent in 2011, with overall arrests dropping by 6.6 percent, according to the Criminal Justice Estimating Conference, which met on July 26.
The smaller prison population and drop in the crime rate are having a ripple effect throughout the criminal justice system that ultimately should curb rising costs in the $2 billion-a-year prison system.
Some of that was reflected in the new state budget that Gov. Rick Scott said contained about $100 million in “savings,” with $75 million related to closing of facilities no longer needed because of a declining crime rate and a slower growing prison population. Some of the money will be redirected into prevention and rehabilitation programs.
Analysts say the shrinking prison population is the result of a continued drop in the crime rate, decreases in new prison admissions and a decrease in the number of inmates that counties are sending to the state system with one-year-and-one-day sentences.
Prison admissions, which peaked in recent years at 42,279 admissions in 2008, have been on the decline _ with the annual drop averaging more than 5 percent a year since then. The 2011-12 fiscal year admissions dropped by 8.8 percent to 32,497 admissions. Analysts noted new admissions tied to drug offenses dropped by 14.5 percent and property crime admissions declined by 7.4 percent.
Florida’s per-capita prison admissions dropped to 528 inmates, per 100,000 Floridians, down from 541 in the previous year.
Bill Bales, head of FSU’s Center for Criminology and Public Policy Research, looked at the declining crime rate since 1991 as well as Florida’s incarceration numbers as part of a 2012 study with fellow criminologist Alex Piquero of the University of Texas at Dallas.
“The primary driver of the drop in crime in Florida over the last 20 years seemed to be the increasing incarceration rate,” Bales said. “It doesn’t seem to be economics. It’s not the level of police presence.
“It’s not demographics. Incarceration was pretty much the only significant variable that we found.”
Over that time, the data shows Florida’s prison population exploded.
It rose from 42,733 inmates in 1990 to a peak of 102,319 in June 2011.
But Bales also noted that Florida was part of a national trend in declining crime rates and there is a lack of certainty in what is actually driving the trends.
“The whole issue of trying to explain the causal dynamics of changing crime rates is still somewhat of a mystery in our field,” he said.
He noted that in Florida, while the crime rate had dramatically dropped since 1991, it only edged down 0.8 percent in 2011.
And he said if the new prison population estimate — which essentially projects little growth in the Florida prison system over the next five years — holds, it could present a test of whether incarceration rates impact crime rates.
“We’ll know in another two or three years,” said Bales, who spent some 16 years working for the state Department of Corrections. “Let’s see what happens with crime. If it goes up each year, then that’s going to be pretty compelling evidence that incarceration rates do seem to influence the crime rate. If doesn’t, then it’s something else.”
As part of his recent study, Bales said he recommended that Florida set up a group of experts to review the criminal justice trends each year and offer some guidance to state leaders.
“We need some kind of system where people look at this every year,” Bales said. “What’s happened in the previous year? Is there anything that’s changed that we need to be concerned about?”
If Florida has been doing things right over the last 20 years to reduce crime, Bales said officials need to be ready to make adjustment if the crime rate does begin to rise again. He said the goal remains to “keep Florida safe.”