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Inmate Population Topped 2 Million in '02, Report Says

U.S. far outpaces states in rate of growth. The disparity is attributed to budget cuts, other issues.

April 07, 2003|Aparna Kumar | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The nation's inmate population swelled to more than 2 million for the first time last year, with nearly 1 in every 142 behind bars in 2002, a Justice Department survey says.

In a one-day head count conducted on June 30, the 50 states, the District of Columbia and the federal government held 1,355,748 prisoners, accounting for two-thirds of the nation's incarcerated population, according to the annual survey by the department's Bureau of Justice Statistics. Local, municipal and county facilities held 665,475 inmates on that day.

Statisticians at the agency, which has been tracking the nation's prison population since 1977, acknowledged that it was only a matter of time before this benchmark was reached. But underlying the decades-long growth trend is a twist: The federal prison numbers are rising rapidly, but the growth rate in state prisons is slowing.

Although the federal prison system expanded by 5.7% from 2001 to 2002 -- adding 8,042 inmates -- state prisons grew by just 0.9%, or 12,440 new inmates. The rate of increase among the federal prison population has outpaced the states' since 1995.

Indeed, with crime numbers declining across the country, states with some of the largest prison systems saw their inmate populations shrink. Texas' numbers fell 3.9%, the largest reduction for any state; followed by New York at 2.9%; Delaware at 2.3%; and California at 2.2%. Although its incarcerated population dropped by 3,650, California continues to maintain the largest state prison system, with 160,315 inmates, followed by Texas, Florida and New York.

But in 20 states -- led by Rhode Island at 17.4% and New Mexico at 11.1% -- the inmate population grew by more than 5% from the previous year.

Other highlights of the report released Sunday:

* The number of people held in local jails -- which house individuals awaiting trial, in addition to those already sentenced -- jumped by 5.4% in 2002, growing faster than the number of new jail beds for the first time since 1997. Los Angeles County kept its title of the biggest local jail system in the country, with an average daily population of 19,258 inmates.

* Overcrowding remains more acute on the federal level: Federal prisons were operating at an average of 31% above capacity, while state prisons were 1% to 16% above capacity.

* One-quarter of all federal prisoners were not U.S. citizens. The number of noncitizens in U.S. and state prisons was 88,776 on the day of the survey, a 1% increase over the previous year.

* Racial and ethnic disparities have not shifted. Among men in their 20s and early 30s, an estimated 12% of blacks, 4% of Hispanics and 1.6% of whites were in prison or jail.

* The number of minors held in adult state prison facilities was 3,055, down nearly 3% from the previous year. Additionally, adult jails held 7,248 inmates younger than 18.

* Men are about 15 times more likely than women to be incarcerated in a state or federal prison. For every 100,000 women in the United States, 60 were serving a sentence of longer than one year, compared with 902 male inmates per 100,000 men.

Experts note reasons for the widening gap between the rates of increase on the federal and state levels. Chief among them are growing budget troubles, which are causing many states -- including California -- to downsize their prison populations by sentencing nonviolent drug offenders to treatment programs. Others, such as Texas, are trying alternate sanctions against parole violators caught for minor infractions.

They also point to the expanding reach of the federal criminal justice system, which now encompasses drug- and gun-related offenses. There has been an increase in the number of people sentenced to prison for those crimes, as well as stricter enforcement of federal immigration and customs violations. "We can't really say any one factor that contributed the most," said Paige M. Harrison, a statistician at the Bureau of Justice Statistics and a co-author of the report. "Since the early 1990s, states passed a series of habitual offender laws that would have contributed to the influx of prisoners. But many of these laws have been realized, so we've seen a slower rate of growth than we have seen recently."

While some experts say get-tough measures such as California's three-strikes law, passed in 1994, are effectively preventing crime and reducing the number of state prisoners, Jeremy Travis, a senior fellow at Washington's Urban Institute, a nonpartisan economic and social policy research center, said it is too early to weigh their effect relative to other factors.

"The important historical perspective here is to realize that the per capita rate of incarceration has quadrupled since the 1980s," Travis said. "The pressing question now is whether, in an era of low crime rates and tight budgets, we can continue to use imprisonment as our predominant crime policy."


The report is available online at

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