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Study Says Inmates Share Links of Abuse, Drugs, Poverty

April 27, 1998|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Forty-eight percent of female inmates and 13% of jailed men have been abused sexually or physically at least once in their lives, according to a profile of the nation's convicted local jail inmates released Sunday.

More than a quarter of the women (27%) and 3% of men said the abuse included rape. Large numbers of the inmates grew up in single-parent homes, were children of dissolute parents or spent at least part of their childhoods in homes on welfare or in public housing. More than a third (36%) said they were unemployed before their most recent arrests.

The study by the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics paints pictures of broken lives and gives clues to why more than half a million people ran afoul of local authorities last year.

More than half the inmates surveyed reported having used illegal drugs in the month before their crimes, up from the 44% estimated when the last such survey was conducted in 1989, Justice officials said. Sixty percent were using drugs, alcohol or both at the time of their offenses.

"The tragedy is that people who have been victimized often become victimizers themselves," said Eric E. Sterling, president of the Washington-based Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. "It's a cycle we could break, but it involves some expense. As a society, we haven't put our resources there."

In the study, the bureau said 20% of inmates were seeking work, 16% were not looking and "almost half reported income of less than $600 a month during the month before their arrest."

Sterling said misbehaving children simply have fewer opportunities for help in poor families.

"Poverty often means that kids in trouble are not able to get therapy or counseling," he said.

By midyear 1997, 567,079 inmates were lodged in the nation's 3,328 local jails, up 43% from 395,554 in mid-1989. Unlike prisons, jails are run by local governments. They hold people awaiting sentencing and prisoners serving short sentences.

The report's findings were extrapolated from a survey of more than 6,000 randomly selected inmates from 431 jails.

About 90% of the inmates were male. Thirty-seven percent were white, 41% were black, 19% were Latino and 3% were from other groups, including Asians, Pacific islanders and Native Americans.

About half the nation's inmates grew up in single-parent homes, and 12% had lived in households without either parent, the bureau said.

Almost half said a relative had spent time in jail or prison, and close to 39% spent some part of their childhood in households that had received welfare or public housing assistance, the bureau said.

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