More than two million offenders are incarcerated in United States prisons, more than any other country in the world, despite a continuing drop in crime rates, the Bureau of Justice Statistics recently announced.
At year’s end 2004, approximately 2,267,787 people, an increase of 1.9 percent over the previous year, were incarcerated. The United States continues to lead the world in imprisonment, with an incarceration rate more than 25 percent higher than any other nation.
The number of state prison inmates topped 2 million for the first time in U.S. history in 2000. The figures show a continuing 32-year trend of increasing incarcerations. However, since 1973, crime rates for offenses such as rape, robbery, aggravated and simple assault, and homicide have fallen, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
The trend of high incarcerations can be tied, in part, to tougher sentencing and drug laws, said Ryan King, research associate for The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based, non-profit, justice-reform advocacy organization.
“This growth has come at significant cost, and there is some question to the long-term impact this will have on society,” he said. “This is a real reflection of sentencing laws, sending more people to prison and keeping them there longer.”
The increase in incarceration, despite falling crime rates, also raises questions about this country’s sentencing and corrections policies, he said.
The Sentencing Project notes a number of factors in the increases:
“War on Drugs” – The ongoing impact of large-scale drug prosecutions is the single most significant factor contributing to higher prison populations since the 1980s. The number of drug offenders in prison and jail rose from 40,000 in 1980 to more than 450,000 today. The Federal Bureau of Investigations indicates a record 1.7 million drug arrests last year, with nearly half of these arrests for marijuana offenses.
Longer prison terms – Policy changes designed to lengthen the amount of time that convicted persons spend in prison include:
1) “Three strikes and you’re out” laws in 25 states. In California, more than 40,000 persons are in prison under these provisions, with more than half of their current convictions being for non-violent offenses.
2) Life imprisonment sentencing increases; an estimated 132,000 persons are serving such terms, representing one of every 11 inmates.
3)Mandatory minimum sentencing laws, particularly at the federal level, have are applied to 60 percent of federal drug cases.
More women in prison – Nearly 200,000 women are in U.S. prisons and jails. The number of incarcerated women has grown at a rate nearly double that of men, due in large part to sentencing policies in the war on drugs.
Federal prison system growth – Currently, there are 180,328 persons in federal prison, an increase of 4.2 percent since 2003. Despite admitted overcrowding, the federal system has expanded significantly, primarily as a result of non-violent offenses.
Parole revocation increases – Of the total admissions to prison each year, the proportion of probation and parole violators has doubled since the mid-1980s, and now constitutes one-third of all admissions. Technical violations, such as failing a drug test, account for a substantial proportion of all parole revocations.
An aging prison population has also contributed. More than 60,000 inmates are over the age of 55.
Ryan cited prevention as one factor in reducing the large prison population, but admitted that’s tough.
“Prevention should be part of the dialogue,” he said. “We should be preventing people from entering the system, but that involves factors outside of the criminal justice system. Providing services, job training, and other factors, we think, would greatly reduce those numbers.”
For more information, visit The Sentencing Project’s website at www.sentencingproject.org.