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Sterner Penalties Send U.S. Prisoner Count Past 1 Million : Corrections: State and federal inmate population grew due to tough sentencing, Justice Department says. Crime rate dropped, meanwhile.


WASHINGTON — The number of state and federal prison inmates topped 1 million for the first time this summer, reflecting tougher sentencing on an array of crimes and a greater proportion of drug arrests leading to prison terms, the Justice Department reported Thursday.

The incarceration rate nationwide also reached an all-time high, with 373 of every 100,000 people behind bars--up from 188 per 100,000 a decade earlier. Only Russia has a higher rate.

California, the nation's most populous state, had more federal and state prisoners than any other state, with 124,813 men and women locked up. The incarceration rate, however, was only slightly above the national average, at 382 per 100,000. That compares to a rate of 164 per 100,000 in 1984.

The prison population of 1 million is double the number a decade ago. The cause appears to be harsher treatment of criminals--not a sharp increase in crime.

Other statistics show that the crime rate for violent offenses peaked in 1981, at 35 incidents per 1,000 population, according to Allen Beck, a statistician at the department. In 1992, the latest year for which there was data, there were 32 violent crimes per 1,000 people, according to the Justice Department.

Instead, the prison population expanded because Americans lost faith in rehabilitation and turned to a "lock-'em-up" strategy, analysts and corrections specialists said.

"It reflects an increasingly widespread belief that the rehabilitation strategies of the last several decades have not worked," said Gerald M. Caplan, dean of McGeorge Law School in Sacramento and former head of the National Institute of Justice, the Justice Department's research arm. "It's a desperation strategy in the absence of other alternatives. No one really knows what to do."

William P. Barr, former President George Bush's attorney general, said that the leveling off of violent crimes in recent years proves the effectiveness of the strict incarceration movement of the late 1980s, which he spearheaded.

"It has held the crime rate lower than it would have been," Barr said in an interview. "The price of putting these people in prisons is lower than the price of leaving them out on the street where they would commit more crimes."

Some criminologists agreed.

Without the tougher policies for locking up violent criminals, "the violent crime rates would have gone up at least 15% and probably much, much more," said Jeffrey Roth, a criminologist at the Urban Institute, a Washington-based research center.

Roth and others have disputed policies put in place by Congress in recent years that markedly increased incarceration rates for drug offenders and other nonviolent criminals.

"If instead of building so many more prisons they had spent the same money on prevention with young people, we might well have had a real drop in violence," Roth said.

The Justice Department attributed half of the increase in state prison populations and three-quarters of the increase in federal prison populations between 1980 and 1992 to people convicted of drug offenses.

Between 1980 and 1992, the proportion of drug arrests that resulted in prison admissions grew fivefold, from 19 per 1,000 to 104 per 1,000. Currently, 60% of federal prisoners are behind bars for drug convictions, most of them for trafficking.

Prison populations have also swelled because of increases in the arrests and likelihood of incarceration for a variety of crimes, including aggravated assault, burglary and sex offenses, according to Justice Department officials. More parolees and people on probation ended up behind bars again because of heightened surveillance and widespread drug testing.

In federal prisons, the increase in inmates is also attributable to harsher sentencing guidelines. In 1987, the federal government abolished parole and since then, 10 states have passed measures to mandate "truth in sentencing," so that criminals serve their full sentences.

Some corrections specialists have argued that prisons filled up in the last decade because of misguided policies, like the war on drugs, that have cost taxpayers large sums but have ignored underlying problems.

Despite all the drug convictions, drugs are still widely available, especially in the inner cities where most arrests are made, said Chase Riveland, who heads the Department of Corrections in Washington state. "We're locking up poor people from the inner cities, who sell drugs to support their own habits instead of treating their addictions."

Conservatives and liberals alike predicted that prison populations will continue to mushroom because of both tougher sentencing policies and an expected rise in the teen-age population starting at the end of this decade. Teen-agers account for a disproportionately large share of crime.

Behind Bars

The nation's prison population exceeds 1 million for the first time, the Justice Department announced.

Inmates in state and federal prisons:

June, 1994: 1,012,851

States with the most inmates:

California: 124,813

Texas: 100,136

New York: 65,962

Florida: 58,052

Ohio: 41,156

States with the highest incarceration rates per 100,000 residents:

Texas: 545

Louisiana: 514

South Carolina: 504

Oklahoma: 501

Growth in first half of 1994: 40,000 inmates, the equivalent of 1,500 a week--or three additional 500-bed prisons.

Source: Justice Department

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