Feature: Number of People Behind Bars in America Increasing By More Than a Thousand a Week 5/26/06

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Despite half a decade of sentencing reform efforts, America's jail and prison population is increasing at a rate of more than a thousand per week, according to the latest annual report by the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics. The total number of people behind bars in the US at the end of last June was 2,186,230, up more than 56,000 over the previous year. Once again, the US retains its title as the world's most prison-crazy nation, holding onto first place in both prisoners per capita and total number of people imprisoned.

Signal Hill jail, southern Los Angeles County, California
In 1980, before the Reagan-era wars on crime and drugs took off, the total jail and prison population was 540,000, or about one-quarter the size it is today. Drug offenders accounted for a measly 6% of all prisoners, compared to nearly one-quarter today. By 1989, the Reagan revolution -- with the aide of a Democratically-controlled Congress -- had doubled the inmate population to a million, and made the turn of the century, the figure had doubled again to two million -- all in an era of declining crime rates.

Of those imprisoned in the US, about two-thirds (1.44 million) were in prison and one-third (748,000) were being held in jails. But most of the increase in the past year was in the jail population, which jumped by more than 33,000 inmates, the biggest increase since 1997. Of the jail inmates, 62% had not been convicted of a crime but were only awaiting trial.

The annual Bureau of Justice Statistics mid-year report does not provide a breakdown of offenses, but other BJS reports do. Based on previous BJS reports last fall, the number of people in jail or prison for drug offenses exceeds 530,000, or roughly one-quarter of all prisoners.

Overall, the rate of increase in the jail and prison population was 2.6% for the year ending June 30, with the federal prison population rising at a slightly higher rate of 2.9%. The federal system now contains more than 184,000 prisoners, a majority of them doing time on drug charges.

Prison systems in 10 states grew by more than 5%, led by three states in the Upper Midwest methamphetamine belt: Montana (up 7.9%), South Dakota (up 7.8%), and Minnesota (up 6.7%). But those are relatively small states. Three larger state prison systems -- Florida, Texas, and North Carolina -- accounted for 40% of all growth in state prison populations.

"Meth is the driving force in a lot of this," said Bob Anez, spokesman for the Montana Department of Corrections. "We're just starting to get the statistics on this, but we believe meth is a big factor," he told DRCNet, explaining that the state had only recently begun disaggregating the numbers for different drugs. "In the first three months of this year, half of our new women inmates and 42% of males were there for meth-related offenses."

Montana hopes to slow the rate of prisoner growth through a new prison-based meth treatment program, Anez said. The legislature has already authorized 80 beds for men and 40 for women, and the program will be up and running by next March. "The idea is rather than have them sitting in prison, put them in a nine-month treatment program, followed by six months of aftercare in a half-way house," Anez explained. The program applies only to those convicted at least twice of meth possession, but not sale or manufacture.

Meanwhile, 12 states reported declines in the population behind bars, led by Vermont (down 2.9%), Idaho (down 2.8%), and New York (down 2.5%), where limited reforms of the Rockefeller drug laws are beginning to have an impact. In the nation's largest state prison and jail system, California, the 2001 "treatment not jail" sentencing reform has contributed to what is essentially zero growth. In the year ending in June, California's prison population grew from 166,053 to 166,532, a 0.3% increase.

Women continue to make up an increasing percentage of the jail and prison population, with BJS noting that the number of women behind bars increased by 3.4% while the number of men rose by only 1.3%. At the end of June, women accounted for 7% percent of all prisoners, up from 6.1% at yearend 1995. But a report released this week by the Women's Prison Association makes the trend even more explicit. According to that report, the female prison population has grown a whopping 757% since 1977, from 11,000 in prison in 1977 to more than 96,000 at the end of 2004.

Most of the increases in female imprisonment can be traced to the war on drugs, the report said. More women are being sent to prison for drug offenses -- notably methamphetamine use -- while convictions for violent crimes have fallen. The report called for alternative sentencing for female prisoners, including addiction treatment for drug offenders.

Looking at the overall picture, criminal justice analysts were troubled by the seemingly endless growth of the incarcerated population. "What's most disturbing is that crime rates have been going down for 10 years now, and one would expect the prison population to decline -- with fewer crimes, we should be sending fewer people to prison -- but that isn't happening," said Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, a group advocating for alternatives to incarceration.

Mauer pointed toward all-too-familiar culprits. "This continuing growth in the prison population reflects the ongoing impact of a number of policies. Mandatory minimum sentencing, which requires incarceration without any judicial discretion is part of it," he told DRCNet. "Also, people are spending more time in prison. Three-strikes laws are an extreme example, but people are doing more time even for less serious offenses. And parole violators -- often guys whose offense is nothing more than a dirty urine test -- are becoming an increasingly significant part of the prison population, now making up as much as a third."

"What really jumps out at me is that the jail population is shooting through the roof," said Jason Zeidenberg, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute. "It's hard to know just what's going on, but there is an increase in the number of people already sentenced and waiting to go to prison," he told DRCNet. "It may be that some states are essentially downloading the prison problem to local jails, telling local officials to keep sentenced prisoners in the counties or even buying jail beds from counties. This could be a bad sign, an omen of a big increase in the prison population next year. Or it could mean the jails are absorbing the prison growth problem. In either case, it's bad news. The jails aren't equipped to deal with big numbers of people coming in there."

BJS chief of corrections statistics Allen Beck told the Associated Press there is another factor at play as well. "The jail population is increasingly un-convicted," he said. "Judges are perhaps more reluctant to release people pretrial."

New prisoners are entering jails faster than new jail beds are being built, BJS reported. With the jail population now at 95% of capacity, trouble looms in the near future.

The drug war is playing an especially serious role in the rapid growth of the number of women behind bars, said Mauer. "Even more so than for men, this is related to drug war policies," he said. "Women in prison are more likely to be there for a drug offense than men. There are too many cases of the 'girlfriend problem,' where the woman may be a bit player but gets more time because she has less information to trade. Women are also more vulnerable and perhaps less sophisticated about being in the criminal justice system, so we are now seeing a vicious cycle of drug war policies combined with the disadvantages women face when the come into contact with the courts."

Despite the steady climb in prisoners, there is hope, Mauer said. "We've seen a number of states enact sentencing and drug reforms in recent years, and that's encouraging. But these numbers tell us it hasn't yet made much of a dent. We are going to need comprehensive approaches and reform strategies or these numbers are going to continue to go up," he predicted.

States should look at the example of Maryland, suggested Zeidenberg. Since 2003, the state has moved toward an emphasis on treatment over incarceration, and it's paying off, he said. "While the prison population in the rest of the country increased 4% since 2003, it has decreased by 4% in Maryland, while treatment admissions have increased 4% and publicly funded treatment admissions have increased by 27%. As other states grapple with rising prison populations, Maryland is bucking the trend," Zeidenberg said. "The investment in treatment in Maryland may pay real dividends by reducing the use of prison."

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Issue #437 -- 5/26/06

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Editorial: Making Sure Drugs Kill | Feature: Number of People Behind Bars in America Increasing By More Than a Thousand a Week | Feature: Fentanyl Death Toll Mounts as Authorities Belatedly Act | DRCNet Review Essay: Drug Policy and Prohibition in Context | Offer and Appeal: Important New Legalization Video and Drug War Facts Book Available | Feedback: Do You Read Drug War Chronicle? | Law Enforcement: This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories | Hemp: No Farm on the Pine Ridge, Says Federal Appeals Court | Search and Seizure: House Bill Aiming to Lower Standards for Student Searches Introduced | Latin America: Colombian Soldiers Accidentally Kill Ten Colombian Narcs | Latin America: Bolivian President Wins Voluntary Limits on Coca Production | Europe: British Report Calls for Safe Injection Sites -- Home Office to Consider | Marijuana: Smoking It Doesn't Cause Lung Cancer, Study Finds | Law Enforcement: Drug Truth Network Awards First Tin Foil Hat Award to DEA's Tandy | Weekly: This Week in History | Weekly: The Reformer's Calendar

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