Every year, the US Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics releases its annual reports on Prison Inmates at Midyear and Jail Inmates at Midyear, and every year we write basically the same headline. The midyear 2007 reports, released last Friday afternoon, are no exception: Once again, the number of people behind bars in the United States is at an all-time high. And although the reports do not break down the offenses for which inmates are incarcerated, according to other recent BJS reports, drug law violators continue to account for roughly one-quarter of the US jail and prison population.
According to the reports, local jails held 780,581 inmates and state federal prisons held another 1,518,535, for a total of just under 2.3 million prisoners in America on June 29, 2007. On a per capita basis, that is 762 prisoners per 100,000 US residents, up from 648 per 100,000 in 2000. The US continues to maintain its position as the world's leading jailer, in both actual numbers and per capita.
And black men continue to be overrepresented in the prison figures. Blacks make up about 13% of the US population, but 35.5% of all prisoners, BJS reported. Nearly one out of 20 (4.6%) of black males were behind bars, a rate more than double that of Hispanic men (1.7%) and more than six times that of white men (0.7%).
While the perpetual upward trend in prisoners continued, the rate of growth slowed slightly last year. In the first six months of 2007, the number of jail and prison inmates climbed 1.6%, compared to 2.0% for the same period in 2006. The slowing in prison population growth was due largely to slower growth in the 10 states with the largest number of prisoners in 2000 -- Texas, California, Florida, New York, Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Louisiana. Growth in those 10 states was 0.7% in 2007, down from 2.3% the previous year.
Growth in jail populations also slowed, from 2.5% in 2006 to 1.9% in 2007. This was the smallest annual rate of growth in the jail population since 2001 and the second smallest since 1981. Still, 13 million people were sent to jails in 2007, BJS reported.
Sentencing reforms adopted by some states in the past decade may be partly responsible for the slight slowing in the growth of the incarceration behemoth, but with the drug war percolating right along the overall trend remains upward. It is difficult to stop a freight train on a dime, let alone throw it into reverse.