Prison population surge defies drop in crime Rate of incarceration also increases, with variations by race, region


The nation's prison population grew by 5.2 percent in 1997, according to the Justice Department, even though crime has been declining for six straight years.

In a new report, the Justice Department said the number of Americans in local jails and in state and federal prisons rose to 1,725,842 in 1997, up from 1.1 million in 1990. During that period, the incarceration rate in state and federal prisons rose to 445 per 100,000 Americans in 1997, up from 292 per 100,000 in 1990.

As for why the number of prisoners continues to grow while crime drops, Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections Martin Horn

said: "You have to understand that as incarcerating more people has helped reduce crime, the number of people we sent to prison in previous years is tending to build up, creating a delayed effect. So you've built in this escalating growth."

In the short term, Horn said, "most people who work in the prison business don't look for drops in crime to lead to drops in the prison population; the two lines are somewhat independent." But, he added: "If crime stayed down for the long term, then the incarceration rate might fall. But crime never does stay down for long."

Among the specific reasons for the continued growth in the prison population, Horn and other experts said, are longer sentences, reduced use of parole, increased arrests of parole violators who are then sent back to prison, and improved efficiency by the police in solving crimes as there are fewer crimes to solve.

The report, by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, found that violent offenses accounted for the largest source of growth among male prisoners in 1997, 52 percent of the total increase. But drug crimes constituted the biggest source of growth for female inmates, 45 percent of their total.

Using new methods to analyze the race of state and federal prisoners, the report found that the incarceration rate for black men in 1996 was 3,096 per 100,000, eight times the rate for white men (370 per 100,000), and more than double the rate for Hispanic men (1,276 per 100,000). The figures provided one of the most powerful illustrations of racial disparity in the nation's prisons.

At the end of 1996, the report said, more black men were in prison than whites, 526,200 to 510,900. The racial disparities were particularly striking among young men, the report found, with 8.3 percent of black men age 25 to 29 in prison in 1996, compared with 2.6 percent of Hispanic men in the same age group and 0.8 percent of white men of those ages.

Sharp regional differences also appeared in incarceration rates, according to the report, with seven of the 10 states with the highest rates being in the South, led by Texas with a rate of 717 prisoners per 100,000 and Louisiana with 672 per 100,000. The states with the lowest rates were North Dakota, 112 prisoners per 100,000; Minnesota, 113 per 100,000; Maine, 124 per 100,000, and Vermont, 140 per 100,000.

Overall, the South had the highest incarceration rate, with 506 prisoners per 100,000, while the Northeast had the lowest rate, 317 per 100,000. The South has long had the highest crime rates of any region, but the report did not analyze whether the South's high incarceration rate was a result of its high crime rate or a matter of public policy favoring tough sentencing laws.

Allen Beck, one of the authors of the report, said that to understand how the number of prisoners nationwide could continue to grow while crime fell, it is important to remember that "the sources of growth are independent, to a certain extent, of crime."

Many states, for example, have adopted tougher sentencing laws, with mandatory minimum sentences, and this is helping increase the amount of time prisoners serve, which in turn increases the prison population. In addition, some states have abolished parole, and in many other states parole boards have much less discretion than they used to, Beck said.

Still another reason for the growth is that an increasing number of prisoners are being incarcerated for parole violations, Beck said.

Pub Date: 8/09/98

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