by Connie Cass
WASHINGTON – America’s inmate population grew by 2.9 percent last year, to almost 2.1 million people, with one of every 75 men living in prison or jail.
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.
Incarceration Rates: We’re Number 1! (Number incarcerated per 100,000)
- US: 715
- Russia: 584
- Mexico: 169
- Canada: 116
- Australia: 114
- Germany: 96
- France: 95
- Japan: 54
(Source: The Sentencing Project)
The report issued Thursday by the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics 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.
Whether that’s good or bad depends on who is asked.
“The prison system just grows like a weed in the yard,” said Vincent Schiraldi, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, which pushes for a more lenient system.
Without reforms, he said, prison populations will continue to grow “almost as if they are on autopilot, regardless of their high costs and disappointing crime-control impact.”
But Attorney General John Ashcroft said the report shows the success of efforts to take hard-core criminals off the streets.
“It is no accident that violent crime is at a 30-year low while prison population is up,” Ashcroft said. “Violent and recidivist criminals are getting tough sentences while law-abiding Americans are enjoying unprecedented safety.”
There were 715 inmates for every 100,000 U.S. residents at midyear in 2003, up from 703 a year earlier, the report found.
The nation’s incarceration rate tops the world, according to The Sentencing Project, another group that promotes alternatives to prison. That compares with a rate of 169 per 100,000 residents in Mexico, 116 in Canada and 143 for England and Wales.
Russia’s prison population, which once rivaled the United States’, has dropped to 584 per 100,000 because of prisoner amnesties in recent years, the group said.
The U.S. inmate population in 2003 grew at its fastest pace in four years. The number of inmates increased 1.8 percent in state prisons, 7.1 percent in federal prisons and 3.9 percent in local jails.
In 2003, 68 percent of prison and jail inmates were members of racial or ethnic minorities, the government said. An estimated 12 percent of all black men in their 20s were in jails or prisons, as were 3.7 percent of Hispanic men and 1.6 percent of white men in that age group, according to the report.
The report also said:
- The number of women in state and federal prisons grew by 5 percent, compared to a 2.7 percent increase for men. Still, men greatly outnumber women: 1.36 million to 100,102.
- Local jails held 691,301 inmates.
- The inmate population in 10 states increased at least 5 percent. Some of the smallest state prison systems saw the largest increase: Vermont’s grew by 12.2 percent, Minnesota was up 9.4 percent and Maine 9.1 percent.
- Only nine states logged a decrease in prison population, led by Rhode Island with a 3.4 percent drop; Arkansas, 2.2 percent; and Montana, 2.1 percent.