Nation's inmate population passed 2 million mark, Justice Dept. says

State prison growth rate slowed

federal rate rose

April 07, 2003|By Aparna Kumar | Aparna Kumar,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WASHINGTON - The nation's inmate population swelled to more than 2 million for the first time last year, with nearly one in every 142 U.S. residents behind bars, a new Justice Department survey says.

In a one-day head count conducted June 30, the 50 states, the District of Columbia and the federal government held 1,355,748 prisoners, accounting for about two-thirds of the nation's incarcerated population, according to the annual survey by the department's Bureau of Justice Statistics. Local, municipal and county facilities nationwide held 665,475 inmates on that day.

Statisticians at the agency, which has been tracking the nation's prison population since 1977, acknowledged that it was only a matter of time before this benchmark was reached.

But underlying the decadeslong growth trend is a twist: The federal prison numbers are rising rapidly, but the growth rate in state prisons is slowing. While the federal prison system expanded by 5.7 percent between 2001 and last year - adding 8,042 inmates - state prisons grew by just 0.9 percent, or 12,440 new inmates. The rate of increase among the federal prison population has outpaced the states' since 1995.

With crime numbers declining throughout the country, states with some of the largest prison systems saw their inmate populations shrink. Texas' numbers fell 3.9 percent, the largest reduction for any state, followed by New York at 2.9 percent, Delaware at 2.3 percent and California at 2.2 percent. Although its incarcerated population dropped by 3,650, California continues to maintain the largest state prison system, with 160,315 inmates, followed by Texas, Florida and New York.

But in 20 states - led by Rhode Island at 17.4 percent and New Mexico at 11.1 percent - the inmate population grew by more than 5 percent from the previous year.

Maryland's inmate population grew by 1.5 percent.

Other highlights from the report released yesterday:

In contrast to the slow growth in state prison populations, the number of people held in local jails - which house individuals awaiting trial, in addition to those already sentenced - jumped by 5.4 percent last year, growing faster than the number of new jail beds for the first time since 1997. Los Angeles County maintained its title of the biggest local jail system in the country, with an average daily population of 19,258 inmates.

Overcrowding remains more acute on the federal level: Federal prisons were operating at an average of 31 percent above capacity, while state prisons were between 1 percent and 16 percent above capacity.

One-quarter of all federal prisoners were not U.S. citizens. The number of noncitizens in federal and state prisons was 88,776 on the day of the survey, a 1 percent increase from a year before.

Racial and ethnic disparities have not shifted. Among all men in the United States in their 20s and early 30s, an estimated 12 percent of blacks, 4 percent of Hispanics and 1.6 percent of whites were in prison or jail.

The number of minors held in adult state prison facilities was 3,055, down nearly 3 percent from the previous year. Additionally, adult jails held 7,248 inmates younger than 18.

Men are about 15 times more likely than women to be incarcerated in a state or federal prison. For every 100,000 women in the United States, 60 were serving a sentence of longer than one year, compared with 902 male inmates per 100,000 men.

Experts note different reasons for the widening gap between the number of inmates held on the federal and state levels. Chief among them are growing budget troubles, which are causing many states to trim their prison populations by sentencing nonviolent drug offenders to treatment programs.

They also point to the expanding reach of the federal criminal justice system, which now encompasses crimes such as drug- and gun-related offenses.

Aparna Kumar is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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