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U.S. Prison Ranks Surge, States' Slow

Crime: The gap is likely to widen as federal officials broaden their reach. California and others opt for treatment rather than jail for drug offenders.

April 11, 2002|ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — With convictions for drugs, guns and immigration offenses on the rise, the size of the federal inmate population is swelling in record numbers, as California and many other states are locking up fewer people, according to a new federal study released Wednesday.

The split between the federal and state systems is likely to grow even wider in years ahead because of changing strategies in law enforcement: Federal officials are broadening their reach to lock up criminals once outside their domain, but states such as California are opting to send many drug offenders to treatment programs rather than prison.

The result is that the federal prison population added an average of more than 200 prisoners a week in the first half of 2001--the biggest increase since statisticians began tracking data in 1977--while state prison populations increased at their slowest rate in 28 years. In California, the state prison population even decreased slightly after a decade-long boom in the 1990s.

"The federal system continues to grow, and grow quickly, but the state systems in the aggregate are slowing down--and slowing down rapidly," Allen J. Beck, co-author of the Justice Department study, said in an interview.

L.A. County Keeps Title of Biggest Local System

Los Angeles County held on to its unenviable title as the biggest local jail system in the country, with an average daily population of more than 19,300 inmates, the study showed. That far eclipsed New York City, with an average of 14,490 inmates, and Cook County, Ill., which includes Chicago, with 10,212.

Nationwide, 1 in every 145 U.S. residents--1.97 million--was locked up in local, state or federal prisons on the day in mid-2001 that the figures were tracked by the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Other highlights from the report:

* Privately run prisons, an increasingly popular alternative for overburdened governments in recent years, saw inmate populations increase nearly 5% nationwide, to about 95,000 inmates.

* The prison populations for the largest state systems decreased for the one-year period ending June 30, 2001. Texas was down 3,661 inmates, California down 525 and New York down 2,553. For California, the 0.3% decrease brought the number of prisoners down to 163,965 inmates, with 468 people per 100,000 serving sentences of more than one year.

* Men continued to be locked up in prisons and local jails at far higher rates than women, with 1,318 male inmates per 100,000 men in the population at large. There were 113 female inmates per 100,000 women.

* Racial and ethnic differences persisted. For men in their 20s and early 30s, an estimated 12% of blacks, 4% of Latinos and 1.8% of whites were in prison or jail. Incarceration rates for female inmates revealed similar disparities, the study found.

The most dramatic changes in the data occurred in the federal system, where the number of prisoners grew to nearly 153,000, a 7.2% increase over the previous year. The increase of about 7,400 prisoners over six months earlier represented the single biggest jump in the federal system since the Justice Department began tracking such data 25 years ago, Beck said.

Driving the trend, he said, are rapid increases in the last five years in the number of people locked up for drug-related crimes--a group that makes up about 60% of the federal prison population--along with inmates convicted on weapon offenses and immigration violations. The numbers do not include the more than 1,000 people taken into custody on immigration offenses in the post-Sept. 11 crackdown on terrorism.

The federal government has moved aggressively in the last several years to implement pilot programs for prosecuting felons caught with guns, imposing stiff prison terms in cases that previously might have generated lesser sentences if tried in state courts.

Congress has also continued to add new crimes to the federal books, a trend that even Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist has spoken out against as a threat to the criminal justice system.

The surge in federal prisoners "is another manifestation of the growing presence of the federal government in crime control," said Carnegie Mellon University criminologist Alfred Blumstein.

"It's of significant concern, because crime control has always been a state and local function, and over the last decade or so it's been moving to the federal system as they've passed a whole variety of new laws," Blumstein said in an interview.

Experts Differ on Causes of States' Trend

In state prison systems, meanwhile, the reversal of many years of rising prison populations reflects the declining crime rates of the 1990s, most analysts agree. But experts differ over what other factors may be causing the trend.

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