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With Fewer to Lock Up, Prisons Shut Doors

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America's prison boom is starting to fizzle.

For decades, the country had little trouble filling its ever-growing number of prisons, thanks in large part to tough-on-crime policies and harsh drug laws.

But a combination of falling crime rates, softer sentences for low-level and nonviolent offenders and a dwindling appetite for hefty prison budgets has begun to whittle away at the number of people behind bars. That is allowing many states to do what a few years ago seemed unthinkable: close prisons.

Comprehensive numbers on prison closures are hard to come by.

But the National Conference of State Legislatures shows that 35 adult correctional facilities in 15 states have closed in the past two years, and governors in states including Pennsylvania, New York and Illinois are pushing for more closures this year.

"This is the first time we've really seen so many states moving to close so many prisons so fast," said Tracy Huling, an expert on prisons who is a fellow at the Open Society Foundations, a liberal advocacy group.

The closures haven't been without opposition. Corrections unions and community leaders worry about job losses and say a result could be overcrowding in the prisons that remain.

Cash-strapped states are increasingly turning to corrections budgets in search of cuts. From 1982 through 2001, state corrections budgets more than tripled to a peak of $53.5 billion, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Now, spending is 9% below that level. In Illinois, Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, is aiming to close four adult and three youth corrections facilities in a bid to save the state $70 million.



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