Prison Population Increase Accelerates, Up 2.6% Last Year 8/1/03

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Despite a decade-long decline in the crime rate, the US prison juggernaut continues to roll and, after a slight slowdown in 2000 and 2001, the rate of increase is rising again. According to an annual report from the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), at the end of last year some 2,166,260 people were behind bars in the US, about one-fifth of them for drug offenses. That marks a 2.6% increase over the previous year, more than twice the 1.1% growth rate in 2001, but still less than the 3.6% annual average growth rate since 1995. And when people in jail are added in, the rate of increase is even higher at 3.7%.

While BJS attributes the bulk of the increase in state prisons to violent offenders, it found that drug offenders were responsible for 15% of the growth. In the federal prison system, which with 163,000 inmates is now larger than any state prison system, the situation is different. The continuing federal war on drugs is responsible for almost half the growth (48%) in the federal system since 1995, BJS found. And it is the federal government's war on drugs that is largely responsible for rate of growth in overall prison numbers. The federal system grew by 4.2% last year, compared to a 2.4% increase in the state prisons.

"I am alarmed about the continuing growth of the federal drug prisoner population," said Jason Zeidenberg of the Justice Policy Institute (, a think tank dedicated to alternatives to policies that rely on incarceration. "And there are still about a half million people in prison whose most serious offense is a drug offense, as well as a whole bunch of others for whom either prohibition or their own problems with drug use contributed to their being there," he told DRCNet.

Southern Correctional Institution, Troy, NC
"It is also bad news that despite all the money problems the states are having, we still see growth in the state systems. That means we have to get in there and sound the alarm bells. There is a huge sucking sound in the states, and it is the sound of education and health care programs going down the tube."

In the last two years, a number of states, including California, Kansas, Louisiana and Washington, have passed sentencing reform laws, but with the exception of California, resulting decreases are barely showing up in the annual numbers. "The good news is that the state drug prisoner population has dropped, thanks to policy changes in big states, particularly California," said Zeidenberg. "People are beginning to get the message that this particular set of offenders doesn't need to be in prison."

"What strikes me," said Marc Mauer, director of The Sentencing Project (, "is the fact that the prison population continues to increase even as crime goes down. There is no excuse for that," he told DRCNet. "This confirms that there isn't necessarily any relationship between crime and imprisonment rates. Imprisonment is a function of policy choices, and our policy makers have chosen to be very harsh. We see this increase because even though there is no real change in the number of people being sentenced to prison, people are serving longer sentences. We can thank mandatory minimums, three-strikes laws and 'truth in sentencing' laws for that," said Mauer.

"And the racial dynamics of this continue to be horrendous," he added, pointing to BJS' findings that more than 10% of black men between 25 and 29 are in prison -- four times the rate for Hispanics and eight times the rate for whites -- and that black men between 20 and 39 constitute a full third of all state and federal prisoners. "The consequences of these dramatic imprisonment rates for black males increasingly mean whole families and whole communities are being affected by this incarceration policy," Mauer pointed out. "There are children walking around with the stigma of a parent in prison, wives and kids who have to go on public support, and most ominously, a large number of young black people who see doing time as something that is likely to be part of their future."

"Wow, the feds have surpassed California in the ability to put people away," said Nora Callahan, director of the November Coalition (, a drug reform group that focuses on prisoners and their families. "It is a system that is unchecked. In the states, sentencing reform is coming from legislatures that have to save money, but with the feds there is no accountability. They have a $400 billion deficit, but it's like it doesn't matter. The feds are like a rogue elephant."

And it is the federal government that most needs the pressure. "Congress and the Bush administration have been very resistant to any sort of change of perspective on drug policy, particularly with regard to sentencing," said Mauer. "Yes, the deficit is huge, but the cost per capita of incarceration is much less significant at the federal than at the state level," he pointed out. "They don't feel it quite the same way."

Still, said Callahan, policies at the federal level must be challenged. "People don't like to work at the federal level because it seems so huge and overpowering," she said. "We understand that everyone has their priorities, but we think it is critical that every state and national group hammer at the feds."

And, as Zeidenberg pointed out, the problem is not just the federal government. "The whole prison industrial complex grew, and even if we saw some declines in the number of drug prisoners in some states, this is still bad for drug reform because all of the fundamentals remain in place. The prison guards' unions, the federal agents, the construction companies and architects, all of those people who benefit from a system designed to incapacitate are still there," he said. "The system is still in place and it's growing."

Among the lowlights of the report:

  • State prisons held 246,100 inmates for drug offenses at the end of 2002, more than for property offenses (233,000) and public order offenses (129,900). Of the four categories of offenders used by BJS, only the number of violent offenders is greater at 596,100. Drug offenders in the federal system as of September 30, 2001, the latest data available, totaled 78,501. This report does not provide figures for the number of drug offenders in jail at the end of 2002.
  • Five states -- New Mexico, Alaska, Montana, Wyoming and Oklahoma -- each held at least a quarter of their prisoners in privately run facilities. Private prisons held almost 94,000 inmates, 5.8% of state prisoners and 12.4% of federal prisoners.
  • Incarceration rates are still climbing, with a rate of 476 state or federal prisoners per 100,000 US residents, up from 411 in 1995. When people in jail are included, the incarceration rate climbs to 701 per 100,000, up from 601 in 1995, and the world's highest.
  • One out of every 143 US residents was behind bars at the end of 2002.
  • There were some 72,000 more people behind bars at year end 2002 than a year earlier, or 6,000 per month, or 1,500 per week, or 200 every day.
  • There were 97,491 women in prison at year end 2002, or 6.8% of all prison inmates. Since 1995 the number of female prisoners has grown 42%, compared to 27% for men.
  • During 2002, nine states experienced prison population decreases, led by Alaska (down 3.8%), Illinois (down 3.7%), Delaware (down 3.2%), and Massachusetts (down 2.4%). Seventeen states had increases, led by Maine (up 11.5%), Rhode Island (8.6%), and Connecticut, Colorado and Minnesota (all 7.9%).
  • Among prisoners held at the end of 2002 by the US Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (BICE), formerly the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), were more than 3,100 convicted of drug offenses.
  • Prisoners held by military authorities dropped 2.4% -- apparently they're not counting Guantanamo Bay.
To read the BJS report, "Prisoners in 2002," the press release and related statistical tables, visit online.

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Issue #298, 8/1/03 Kansas City Drug Fighting Tax Encounters Organized Opposition | Prison Population Increase Accelerates, Up 2.6% Last Year | Brazil's Lula Backslides on Drug Reform, Grants Military Continued Control Over Anti-Drug Agency | This Week in History | Newsbrief: Mozambique, Swazi Farmers Find Dagga Crop Lucrative, But Have to Adjust to Market Trends | Newsbrief: Brazil Bans Viagra Ads | Newsbrief: British Young People Using More Hard Drugs, Health Department Says | Newsbrief: This Week's Corrupt Cops Story | Newsbrief: Another Pain Doctor Charged With Murder | Newsbrief: Florida Ex-Cons to Get Voting Rights | Mini Briefs: Illinois Syringe Deregulation, James Geddes Released | Web Scan: OPN, HRC, Cultural Baggage, | The Reformer's Calendar

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