James Hart | Number of inmates is on the decline

As you sit down with your extended family for a big holiday dinner, you might look around the room and wonder:

Isn’t Uncle Bert supposed to be in prison right now? You know, for that pyramid scheme? With the ostrich futures?

As it happens, you aren’t the only person who’s sick of Bert hanging around and eating.

The United States saw a 0.6 percent decline in the number of inmates at state and federal prisons in 2010, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report issued last week.

That might not seem significant until you realize that the total U.S. prison population hasn’t decreased since 1972.

So why is Uncle Bert swilling eggnog at your house instead of toilet wine in Bowling Green? Well, you could blame the economy.

It’s no secret that a lot of states have struggled with shrinking budgets. They’ve cut or frozen services, including higher education and transportation. It was only a matter of time until people started reconsidering the cost of housing, feeding, clothing and guarding 1.6 million criminals.

To save money, some states have strengthened their re-entry and parole programs. The hope is those programs will keep offenders out of trouble, so they don’t have to go back to prison for parole violations, the Pew Center on the States reports.

So that’s one theory. The Bureau of Justice Statistics says that fewer people are being sent to prison, though the bureau isn’t sure exactly why that is.

The agency doesn’t know whether fewer people are being convicted, or whether judges and juries are giving out lighter sentences.

Whatever the reason, the states’ prison populations dropped by 10,881 to about 1.4 million last year. (The federal numbers went up, but it was the smallest increase since 1980.)

Kansas and Missouri were among the states that saw their inmate numbers go up in 2010. That could change, though. In Missouri, a state task force has suggested several ideas that could save $7.7 million to $16.6 million in corrections costs over five years.

It’s a big change from years ago, when politicians insisted on tougher sentences.

Critics worry that public safety could suffer if cost becomes the driving concern when it comes to prison sentences.

The silver lining, though, is you finally have something to talk about with Uncle Bert.