Turning loose inmates to ease prison crowding is the only reason Arkansas shows up as the only Southern state where the prison population fell last year, a prison spokeswoman says.
Nationwide, the prison population grew by 2.9 percent last year to almost 2.1 million inmates, with one of every 75 men living in prison or jail, according to a report issued by the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics.
About one-fourth of the national inmate total _ 581,901 prisoners _ were jailed in the South, the largest prison population of any region of the country. The total was up by 3.6 percent from 2002.
While every other Southern state except Delaware showed an increase ranging from 1.1 percent to 4.8 percent, Arkansas' prison population fell by 2.2 percent, to 12,378 from 12,655 in 2002.
But prison spokeswoman Dina Tyler said the numbers were down only because of the Arkansas Department of Correction's use of the Emergency Powers Act to release prisoners early to ease chronic crowding.
The state law authorizes the release of inmates up to 90 days earlier than their scheduled parole dates. The Legislature last year approved an expansion of the law that lets some nonviolent offenders go up to a year early.
In 2003, 1,211 inmates were released early under provisions of the state law.
"We use those as population management tools to keep our population down," Tyler said. "We have not been growing, at least in the male population. But by using the EPA, we're turning people out faster."
Arkansas had 13,539 state prisoners Thursday, including 730 in county jails awaiting transfer to a state lockup. Capacity in state prisons is 11,640.
Nationally, the inmate population continued its rise despite a fall in the crime rate and many states' efforts to reduce some sentences, especially for low-level drug offenders.
The Justice Department report attributes much of the increase to get-tough policies enacted during the 1980s and '90s, such as mandatory drug sentences, "three-strikes-and-you're-out" laws for repeat offenders, and "truth-in-sentencing laws" that restrict early releases.
Arkansas passed such laws. Last year, the state Legislature rejected a bill to let some inmates sentenced for methamphetamine crimes serve less than the 70 percent of their sentences, as required by current law. Lawmakers also panned legislation that would have awarded prisoners more "good time" off their sentences for good behavior.