The number of U.S. state prison inmates fell for the first time in 38 years, according to a new report by The Pew Center on the States. A few figures from the report:

Pew attributes the drop to greater diversion of low-level offenders and probation and parole violators from prison; stronger community supervision and re-entry programs; and, a quicker release of low-risk inmates who complete risk reduction programs. State budget problems have likely played an important role in accelerating each of these trends.

While the magnitude of the 2009 change is small — a drop of 5,739 inmates (or .4%) on a base rate of 1.4 million — any change in direction is meaningful after four decades of unabated growth. Nevertheless, I should note that the total number of state and federal prisoners actually rose in 2009, since the federal inmate count rose by 6,838. And, despite a crime rate that has fallen over at least the last two decades, the United States still maintains the world’s highest incarceration rate.