US Global Lead in Imprisonment Still Safe: State Prison Populations Begin to Decline but Feds Make Up Difference 8/17/01

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According to a report released this week by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the number of state prison inmates declined in the last six months of 2000, marking an end to three decades of unbroken increases: The last such decline was in 1972. But because of the continuing rapid growth of the federal prison system, the number of people behind bars actually increased, although only by a sluggish 1.3%, the lowest rate of increase since 1990.

Whether the relative stagnation in the US jail and prison population is a fluke or represents the beginning of the end of America's decades-long prison binge remains to be seen. The report's main author, Alan J. Beck, told the New York Times he did not foresee a substantial real decline in prisoners in coming years. Beck attributed some of the decline to short-term factors, such as looser rules for parole revocation, in individual states.

"In New Jersey and Ohio they are less likely to revoke parole than in prior years. New York has also become more lenient," he said. All three states saw declines in the last half of 2000.

But University of California-Berkeley criminologist Franklin Zimring was more upbeat. "There are young adults who have never drawn a breath in the United States during a period when the prison population wasn't growing," he told the Associated Press. "Until now, the full-time business of prisons has been the growth of the prison population. Finally, this looks like real stabilization. If it continues, it is a new era in law enforcement."

The actual decline in state prisoners in the last half of last year comes amid slowing rates of increase for the last few years. For the 1990s as a whole, the annual growth rate was 6%, but by the end of the first half of 2000, state prison population growth was virtually nil (

Criminal justice policy groups and academics concurred on several factors driving the decline. Some, primarily the dramatic decrease in crime since 1991, are notable primarily for their belated impact. Others, such as changes in the likelihood of parole -- up from 1-in-6 of those eligible to 1-in-4 during the mid-1990's -- and the emerging trend toward less resort to parole violation for picayune offenses, reflect growing concern over the cost of housing prisoners, as evidenced in legislative debates across the country this year over sentencing policy and prison costs.

Drug policy, which has largely fueled the imprisonment boom, may now be starting to exercise just the slightest counter-pressure, according to the Sentencing Project (, a nonprofit group dedicated to finding alternatives to imprisonment. In a release analyzing the BJS report, the group noted the emergence of drug courts and other treatment-based approaches to drug offenders. Pointing to the experience of Arizona, which has diverted more than 2,500 drug offenders from prison into treatment, the Sentencing Project wrote: "While it is too early to evaluate the impact of these sentencing options nationally, some state programs appear to be diverting offenders from incarceration."

With California's Proposition 36 now in effect -- it alone is predicted to divert 25,000 people from California prisons each year -- and organizers vowing similar efforts in Ohio, Michigan, and Florida, the impact of the turn to "treatment not jail" on prison populations should increase.

Despite the headlines about declining state prison populations, the BJS report still paints a grim picture. Among its findings:

  • The US has the world's highest incarceration rate -- 699 per 100,000 -- and holds one quarter of the world's prisoners.
  • The federal prison system, driven by mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws and "truth in sentencing" no-parole schemes, continues its rapid growth. As the Justice Policy Institute noted in its response to the report, "The federal prison system, which is now the third biggest prison system in the United States, grew at 10 times the rate of the state prison systems in 2000. Over the last twenty years, the number of people under the jurisdiction of the federal prison system has soared from 24,363 to 145,416 today. Recently, the executive director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons announced that 30 new federal prisons would open in the next seven years, adding about 50,000 prison beds to this system."
  • Three great gulags -- California (163,001 inmates), Texas (157,997) and the federal system (145,416) together held one-third of all prisoners in the country.
  • African-Americans make up one-quarter of state and federal prisoners. Of the 1.3 million prisoners, 428,000 were black. Nearly 10% of all black men between 20 and 29 are behind bars, compared to 2.9% of Hispanic men, and 1.1% of white men.
  • Since 1990 the number of state prisoners has grown by 72%. During this period 10 states more than doubled their sentenced inmate populations, led by Idaho (up 182%), Texas (up 164%), and West Virginia (up 142%).
The Sentencing Project points to several public policy areas where battles that can affect imprisonment rates will be fought. Federal sentencing policy, which has driven the explosive growth in the federal prison system, must be rethought, said the group, or "we can anticipate continued growth." The growth of the federal system is also providing most of the oxygen for the private prison industry, the group noted.

State legislatures will continue to be a battleground as well, as lawmakers face federal incentives for "truth in sentencing" laws that require prisoners to serve 85% of their sentences on one hand, and the dramatic costs of imprisonment on the other.

And drug policy. The Sentencing Project notes the beginning of the era of Prop. 36 and suggests that treatment and prevention approaches "hold the potential of diverting substantial numbers of drug offenders into court-ordered treatment." The devil there remains in the details, however, and only time will tell whether such measures will ultimately reduce overall incarceration, or merely create a new class of persons living under criminal justice control.

The BJS report can be found online at:

The Sentencing Project release is available online at:

The Justice Policy Institute release can be read at:

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Issue #199, 8/17/01 Editorial: Let Justice Be Done | US Global Lead in Imprisonment Still Safe: State Prison Populations Begin to Decline but Feds Make Up Difference | Prison Industry Confab Gets Heated Reception in Philadelphia | Mandatory Minimums Under Threat, Supreme Court Showdown Looming After 9th Circuit Rules Against Certain Drug Sentencing Laws | Oregon Bar Ethics Brouhaha Continues: Feds Still Refusing to Authorize Undercover Operations, State Narcs Could Be Out There | Department of Education Cites Pressure to Modify Restrictions on Financial Aid | Australia: Top Cops Propose "Heroin Bank," Political Firestorm Ensues as Prime Minister Nixes Idea | Chess Players Become Drug Tested Pawns in Game's Bid for Olympic Status, Players Not Amused | Vermont Governor Leads Way in Restricting Oxycontin for the Poor | Weitzel Prosecution Condemned by Leading Pain Specialist | Marijuana Extracts for Pain Study to Begin in Canada | DRCNet Book Review: Hooked: Five Addicts Challenge Our Misguided Drug Rehab System | T-shirts for Victory! Special Offer and Appeal from DRCNet This Month | Action Alerts: Ecstasy Bill, HEA, Mandatory Minimums, Medical Marijuana, John Walters | HEA Campaign Still Seeking Student Victim Cases -- New York Metropolitan Area Especially Urgent | The Reformer's Calendar
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