Prison, Probation and Parole Populations Growing Rapidly 8/21/98

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- Kris Lotlikar and David Borden

Recent reports from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reveal that the numbers of Americans in prison, as well as those on probation or parole, have continued to grow rapidly throughout the 1990's. "Prisoners in 1997," released on August 2 ( on the web), found that 61,186 men and women had been added to the prison population during that year, bring the total to 1,244,554 state and federal inmates -- plus 567,079 men and women held in local jails, either awaiting trial or serving sentences of one year or less, bringing the total of incarcerated adults in the United States to 1.7 million. Throughout the 1990's, the number of incarcerates in US prisons has been grown at a rate of roughly 64,000 inmates a year -- more than the number of Americans who perished in the Vietnam War.

An analysis by the Sentencing Project, a Washington, DC think tank, found that two million people will be behind bars in this country by the year 2000, if current trends continue. (The Project's analysis is posted on their web site at, News section.)

Compounding the prison population are the 3.9 million Americans on probation or parole in the United States. At the end of 1997, one out of every 35 adults in the United States was either in prison, jail, or on probation or parole, according to a BJS report released August 16, "Nation's Probation and Parole Population Reached New High Last Year," on the web.

Since the massive growth of the prison industry began to take place in the 1980's, continuing this decade, the United States has led the world in the percentage of its population that it incarcerates, trading off for first place with Russia. The question arises, why in the land of the free, has the prison population risen to such a shocking level, during such a short period of time?

One of the main factors, according to the Sentencing Project, is mandatory minimum sentencing. "Mandatory minimum sentencing policies that now exist in every state have been used disproportionately for drug offenders", the above-mentioned report states.

Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), explains that mandatory minimum penalties, along with so-called "truth in sentencing" laws, have directly led to the rapid growth of U.S prison populations. Truth in sentencing, under which defendants must serve typically 85% of their sentences, has been driven by a 1994 financial incentive passed by congress for states which pass such laws. "We are filling our prisons up and not letting the prisoners out and it has shown no impact on crime", Stewart told The Week Online. "Mandatory Minimums have sparked this prison growth. It is an indictment of the American judicial system."

(It is important to note that the sentencing schemes in place prior to the truth in sentencing laws, were enacted as part of a system that included probation and parole, through which it was assumed that many if not most inmates would be released early -- e.g., 20 years wasn't intended to be 20 years, except for those deemed to be truly incorrigible. By enacting truth in sentencing laws, without modifying the corresponding sentencing laws that they affect, Congress and state legislatures have dramatically increased sentence lengths based on a soundbite as opposed to a thoughtful analysis. This is nothing new -- the 1986 mandatory minimum laws, for example, were passed by Congress without so much as a hearing.)

"Prisoners in 1997" reports that 25% of the growth of the prison population since 1990 is accounted for by drug offenders. But this figure may understate the magnitude of the impact that the war on drugs has had on the prison system. Marc Mauer, assistant director of The Sentencing Project, explained to the Week Online: "It's true that the proportion drug offenders comprise of new incarcerations has leveled off during the 1990's. But that doesn't negate the enormous climb in the number of drug offenders incarcerated during the 1980's, many of whom are still in prison, serving mandatory minimum sentences. In 1980, drug offenders comprised a mere 6% of the incarcerated population. Furthermore, the fact that violent offenders are being incarcerated at greater rates than previously, doesn't negate the fact that the number of drug offenders in prison is growing rapidly in and of itself, and that many of offenders are not true threats to society, and could be dealt with in other ways."

For further information, visit the web sites of The Sentencing Project,, and Families Against Mandatory Minimums, Avenue

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Issue #55, 8/21/98 Prison, Probation and Parole Populations Growing Rapidly | American Psychological Association Calls for Repeal of Mandatory Minimums | Conference: Beyond the Prison Industrial Complex, Berkeley, CA 25-Sep - 27-Sep | Giuliani Carries out Methadone Threat | Methadone Conferences Coming Up -- In New York! | Report: Marijuana Prohibition Has Not Curtailed Marijuana Use by Adolescents | West Australia Decriminalizes Marijuana On Trial Basis | Peter McWilliams Released on Bond | War on Drugs Blamed for Lapse in Ethical Standards of Federal Prosecutors | Driving While Black: Legislative Alert from the American Civil Liberties Union | Editorial: One in Thirty-Five
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