Published: Jan 29, 2012 3:49 PM EST

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - When Florida's prison system announced it was closing 11 facilities, it flew in the face of conventional wisdom that the state's prison population was high and rising.
 
If there's room to spare, where have all the prisoners gone?
 
The short answer is that they never arrived, at least not in the numbers expected.
 
Policymakers 20 years ago, extrapolating on then-current crime trends, expected an explosion of offenders and started building prisons. In particular, the early data suggested the rise of "superpredators," a wave of juvenile delinquents that would flood the criminal justice system in the early 2000s.
 
The wave, however, never happened and crime rates have fallen since 1991. Florida now has excess prison room, about 116,000 beds for 102,000 inmates - a number that's basically been flat for three years.
 
Gov. Rick Scott, looking to plug a $1.4 billion budget shortfall, this month decided to shutter seven of the state's 62 prisons and four of its 46 work camps, potentially costing 1,300 workers their jobs. The initial savings are estimated at $15 million, according to the Department of Corrections.  The department budget is $2.4 billion.
 
"Forecasting of prison space is not an exact science," said Bill Bales, a Florida State University criminology professor who was the prison system's research director from 1987 to 2003. "There's no crystal ball."
 
When the prison expansion began two decades ago, it seemed certain more space would be needed. Crime rates had been climbing for 30 years, crack cocaine usage was on the rise and South Florida was in its violent "Miami Vice" period. The state also eliminated parole for new inmates and required that they serve no less than 85 percent of their sentences. That also was expected to keep lockups full.
 
Over the last 20 years, the state opened 38 facilities, which could include prisons, camps or additions to existing facilities, according to records. The department could not provide total construction costs for those projects.
 
Jodi Lane, a professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Florida, said fear of rising crime over the decades "sent (policymakers) in a tizzy."
 
"They thought, 'This is going to explode,'" she said.
 
But it didn't.
 
From 1991 to 2010, Florida saw the per capita major crime rate - including homicide, rape, robbery, burglary, aggravated assault, theft, auto theft and arson - drop by 52 percent, according to FBI statistics. The per capita violent crime rate went down almost 55 percent in that same time.
 
From 2008 to 2010 alone, the overall number of Florida arrests decreased more than 11 percent.
 
And there are fewer new inmates today, records show. The number of annual admissions to the prison system peaked four years ago at about 42,000, but has been falling since to an estimated 35,000 in the last fiscal year, according to the state's Criminal Justice Estimating Conference.
 
Florida is not alone. Nationally, total state prison population has remained flat at about 1.2 million over the last decade, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
 
Experts haven't yet come up with definitive answers on why fewer people are entering the criminal justice system.
 
The recession seems not to have had an effect: There aren't any significant studies that show a link between higher unemployment and increased crime, Bales said.
 
There is some irony in the decreasing inmate population. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1977 that Florida's prisons were overcrowded, violating the inmates' constitutional rights against cruel and unusual punishment. That caused a spate of early releases to relieve the crowding but also contributed to the construction boom.
 
Lane said that by the late 1990s policymakers started realizing just how expensive big prisons were to build and operate.
 
They now prefer less-expensive alternatives such as halfway houses, house arrest, ankle monitors and other things loosely termed "community control," for many offenses, she said.
 
"Plus, we know prison doesn't decrease recidivism," she said. "Prison makes you worse, not better. People don't come out and say, 'I'm never going to commit crime again.'"
 
Now, the victims of a 20-year-old bad guess are the 1,300 Florida prison employees who might lose their jobs.
 
"I'm not going to guarantee we can place everyone," Corrections Secretary Kenneth S. Tucker has said. He said he's reaching out to other state agencies and county sheriffs to find jobs for corrections workers.
 
Sarah Babineaux works at Martin Correctional Institution, which isn't one of the prisons set to close. But she worries whether her workplace might be next.
 
Babineaux has a young son and daughter, cares for two nieces, and lives in staff housing in Indiantown. She said she lies awake some nights till 3 a.m. then has to get up at 4:30 to start getting all the children ready for school.
 
"It's stressful," the 40-year-old said. "You can't get rid of it from your mind."