Ever Upward: At Nearly 1.5 Million, US Prison Population at New High 11/12/04

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The number of people in prison in the United States increased again last year, according to a report released Sunday by the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). According to the annual report, American prisons held 1,470,045 inmates as of December 31, 2003, an increase of 2.1% over the previous year. (For those wondering about the oft-cited figure of 2.2 million prisoners in the US, the discrepancy lies in the fact that Sunday's report does not count people imprisoned in jails.)

Southern Correctional Institution, Troy, NC
The drug war continues to play a significant role in the expansion of the prison population. According to BJS, 20% of all prison inmates are serving time for drug charges. "Drug-related" crimes, such as property theft by addicts or violent conflict-resolution in unregulated drug markets, and to a much lesser degree, drug-induced violence, create an unknown number of additional drug war-related inmates.

Despite sentencing reforms that began taking hold in various states beginning in the late 1990s, the number of state prisoners continues to increase, rising by 1.6% last year. In California, for instance, where voters passed the "treatment not prison" Proposition 36 in 2002, the state prison population increased by more than 3,000 people last year. Similarly, in Texas, where authorities have moved to ease parole revocations in a move to keep inmate numbers down, the inmate population actually increased by nearly 5,000.

But once again, the federal prison system and the federal war on drugs are the prime factor pushing the numbers higher. The federal prison population grew by 5.8%, nearly four times the rate of growth in the states. While only slightly more than one-tenth the size of the combined state prison systems, federal prisons accounted for fully one-third of the growth in prisoners, accounting for 9,500 of the nearly 30,000-prisoner increase in the overall prison population last year. With drug offenders making up 55% of all federal prisoners (only 13% are doing time for violent crimes), the federal drug war is the driving force not only in the increase in federal prisoners but in the overall increase in prisoners nationwide.

Given the long-term decrease in overall crime rates since 1991, BJS noted that the government's version of "sentencing reform," as the report called it, had actually increased both prison admissions and average sentence length in the period since 1995, with annual admissions jumping from 522,000 that year to 615,000 in 2003. Similar, sentence lengths increased from an average of 23 months to 30 months during the same period.

"This increase is largely due to policy changes that have increased the amount of time offenders are serving in prison," said the sentencing reform group The Sentencing Project in a statement greeting the BJS report. "These include such measures as 'three-strikes,' mandatory sentencing, and 'truth in sentencing,'" the group noted.

In one landmark, again largely a function of the drug war, the number of women prison inmates has passed the 100,000 mark for the first time. As The Sentencing Project noted, "The rapid growth in the rate of women's incarceration -- at nearly double the rate for men over the past two decades -- is disproportionately due to the war on drugs. Women in prison are more likely than men (30% vs. 20%) to be serving a sentence for a drug charge."

The US also retains its status as the world's greatest jailer nation. With an imprisonment rate of 714 per 100,000 population, the US easily outpaced second-place Russia with its rate of 584 per 100,000. The US imprisonment rate is nearly four times that of neighboring Mexico (169) and more than five times that of Great Britain (141).

As a result of the imprisonment binge, American prisons are stuffed past capacity, with all that implies for the quality of life behind bars. According to BJS, state prisons were operating at as much as 116% of capacity, while the federal prison system is operating at 39% above capacity.

Last but not least, blacks continued to be the largest group of prisoners, making up 44% of all inmates, compared to 35% white and 19% Hispanic, with 2% "other." These proportions have gone almost unchanged in the past decade, BJS noted.

Read the BJS report, "Prisoners in 2003," at http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/abstract/p03.htm online.

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Issue #362, 11/12/04 Editorial: The Spirit of Lawfulness | Ever Upward: At Nearly 1.5 Million, US Prison Population at New High | In an Hour of Conservative Ascendancy: Prospects for Drug Reform at the Federal Level During the Next Four Years | Syracuse Reconsiders Drug Policy | Newsbrief: Congressional Drug Warrior Threatens Canada Over Marijuana Legislation | Newsbrief: In New Twist in Thai Drug War, Police Detain and Drug Test Club Goers | Newsbrief: Ann Arbor Officials to Ignore Voters' Will on Medical Marijuana | Newsbrief: Georgia Supreme Court Says Wife Can't Consent to Search of Home Against Husband's Will | Newsbrief: Austin, Texas, Cop Killed Enforcing Marijuana Possession Law | Newsbrief: Supreme Court to Look at Drug Dogs in Traffic Stops | This Week in History | The DARE Generation Returns to DC: Students for Sensible Drug Policy 2004 National Conference Next Month | Apply Now to Intern at DRCNet! | DrugWarMarket.com Seeking Information, Affiliations, Link Exchanges | The Reformer's Calendar
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