LANSING - Michigan has its smallest prison population since 1997.
"Prison populations have been dropping in the last five years," said Russ Marlan, the public information officer at the Department of Corrections.
Michigan prisons had 42,940 inmates at the end of December, compared to a peak of 51,554 in March 2007, according to a new department report.
"It's good news," said David Moran, clinical professor of law at the University of Michigan.
"As of 2008, the U.S. had the highest incarceration rate in the world. The incarceration rate increased by approximately a factor of six in 35 years even though crime in recent years has fallen to levels not seen since the 1950s," he said.
"That higher rate is simply unsustainable," he said.
Many reasons are behind the shrinking number of inmates.
Moran said, "The budget crisis is the most important reason the prison population is declining. It simply became impossible for many states to continue locking up so many people for so long.
"Michigan was hit with a recession earlier, and the pressure to reduce incarceration therefore started earlier here," he said.
But the department said the budget isn't responsible for the dropping prison population.
Marlan said, "We don't think we will just let people go if we lack money. It is not just that simple as people thought."
He said the reasons are a combination of the number of criminals coming in the front door and the number of criminals released.
There was a 4 percent decrease in reported crimes and fewer arrests in the state last year, leading in turn to fewer felony convictions and fewer prison admissions, according to the Corrections Department report.
Marlan said, "We couldn't control who comes in prison door, but we control the release, how they are released and what kinds of service can we provide when they are released."
He said the Michigan Prisoner Re-entry Initiative contributes significantly to the release trend.
The program that began in 2004 supports offenders' accountability by helping them learn how to achieve success upon release.
U of M's Moran said in recent years Michigan eliminated mandatory sentencing for certain crimes.
"The Parole Board led the way to reducing the prison population by becoming much more reasonable about granting parole. For many years, the parole board was reluctant to parole anyone," Moran said.
"Now the Parole Board is much more willing to parole prisoners earlier in their sentences."
Meanwhile, the Michigan Corrections Organization, the union that represents state corrections and forensic officers, expressed concerns about public safety due to prison closings.
Usually when a prison is closed, the inmates transfer to other facilities.
Sacha Crowley, a communication specialist for the union, said, "When they transfer the prisoners there should be a higher security level in the facility.
"Because there are more critical incidents, there are more fights and there are more things can happen. It certainly will influence the officers, but it also potentially affects the communities as well," she said.
Correctional facilities in Ionia, Kincheloe, Baldwin, Muskegon, Jackson, Standish, Coldwater and Plymouth have been closed in the last five years. Such closures affect employees throughout the department, according to the union.
Closing prisons also has an adverse economic impact on local communities, including the loss of officers and civilian jobs.
Last year when Florence Crane Correctional Facility in Coldwater was closed, the department kept the nearby Lakeland Correctional Facility open to lessen the economic impact.
Moran said closing undoubtedly hurts local economies.
"But that meant that the money spent on those prisons could be turned to more productive uses," he said.