Monday, August 13, 2001

Number in prison soared in 1990s

Crime rate dropped, but sentencing grew tougher

By Ana Radelat
Gannett News Service

        WASHINGTON — The number of people behind bars in the United States grew by nearly 77 percent in the 1990s, but the rise in the nation's prison population seems to be leveling off, a Justice Department study released Sunday said.

        The study of inmates in local, state, federal and private prisons said more than 2 million people were incarcerated at the end of 2000. In 2000, there were 478 prisoners serving sentences of a year or more per 100,000 U.S. residents. At the end of 1990, the number was 292 prisoners per 100,000 residents.

        Five states — all relatively small and rural — had increases of more than 10 percent in their incarceration rates in 2000: Idaho, North Dakota, Mississippi, Vermont and Iowa.

        Of the states, Louisiana had the highest incarceration rate, 801 inmates per 100,000 state residents, followed by Texas, 730, Mississippi, 688, and Oklahoma, 685. The District of Columbia's rate was 971. Minnesota and Maine had the lowest rates.

        Bureau of Justice statistician Allen Beck said the increase in prisoners amid a declining crime rate could be attributed to tougher federal and state sentencing guidelines, longer sentences and a greater tendency to return parole violators to prison.

        The sharpest increase in incarceration rates occurred among women. Since 1990, the number of male prisoners grew by 77 percent while the number of female prisoners increased 108 percent, the Justice Depart ment report said. However, only one in 15 prisoners is a woman.

        Dan Macallair, vice president of the nonprofit Justice Policy Institute, said the increase in female prisoners could be attributed, at least in part, to the federal government's “war on drugs,” which has resulted in more incarcerations and longer jail sentences. The numbers of women in prison convicted of drug crimes rose by more than a third during the 1990s.

        “Women have borne a greater burden of the drug war than men,” Mr. Macallair said, adding that they are more likely to be incarcerated for drug crimes than men.

        The report also indicated that African-Americans continue to be overrepresented in prison. At the end of 2000, more than 46 percent of sentenced inmates were black males, and nearly one in 10 black men ages 25 to 29 was imprisoned.

        The number of youths behind bars also grew from 93,732 in 1990 to 108,965 at the end of 2000, despite a decline in juvenile arrests and convictions.

        Mr. Macallair attributed the rise in juvenile in mates to a “fear of kids” engendered by a rise in youth violence in the late 1980s that failed to result in lesser sentences when youth crime began to drop in the mid-1990s.

        But the surge in prison population seems to be leveling off, Mr. Beck said.

        During the final six months of 2000, the nation's state prison population declined by 6,200 inmates — the first measured decline since 1972 — Mr. Beck said.

        In addition, some states experienced a decrease in incarcerations, including Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Texas.

        Mr. Beck said the decline in Texas could be attributed to changes in parole board policies. The drop in crime could account for the shrinking inmate population in New York and other states.

        Mr. Macallair said shrinking crime rates should have fostered a much greater decline in incarcerations across the nation, but the prison and justice systems are resisting.

        “We have developed a huge infrastructure of prisons, ... so we can't really anticipate a dramatic drop in the numbers of prisoners,” he said.


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