Pubdate: Sun, 27 Jul 2003
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2003 The New York Times Company
Author: Fox Butterfield
Bookmark: (Mandatory Minimum Sentencing)
Bookmark: (Incarceration)
Bookmark: (Racial Issues)


The nation's prison population grew 2.6 percent last year, the largest
increase since 1999, according to a study by the Justice Department.

The jump came despite a small decline in serious crime in 2002. It also came
when a growing number of states facing large budget deficits have begun
trying to reduce prison costs by easing tough sentencing laws passed in the
1990's, thereby decreasing the number of inmates.

"The key finding in the report is this growth, which is somewhat surprising
in its size after several years of relative stability in the prison
population," said Allen J. Beck, an author of the report. Mr. Beck is the
chief prison demographer for the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the
statistical arm of the Justice Department, which releases an annual study of
the number of people incarcerated in the United States.

At the end of 2002, there were 2,166,260 Americans in local jails, state and
federal prisons and juvenile detention facilities, the report found.

Another important finding was that 10.4 percent of black men ages 25 to 29,
or 442,300 people, were in prison last year. By comparison, 2.4 percent of
Hispanic men and 1.2 percent of white men in the same age group were in

The report, which was released yesterday, found that this large racial
disparity had not increased in the past decade. But Marc Mauer, the
assistant director of the Sentencing Project, a prison change research and
advocacy group, said that with the number of young black men in prison
remaining so high, "the ripple effect on their communities, and on the next
generation of kids growing up with their fathers in prison, will certainly
be with us for at least a generation."

Mr. Beck, Mr. Mauer and other experts said the growth in the prison
population last year, despite the efforts by some states to reduce the
number of inmates, was a result of the continuing effect of draconian
sentencing laws passed in the 1990's when the states could afford to build
more prisons and politicians competed to sound tough on crime.

Mr. Beck said increases in inmates in several of the largest states
contributed to most of the national increase. Those states included
California, Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania, he said. In Florida, he
said, local judges used their discretion under the tougher laws to sentence
more people convicted of felonies to prison rather than probation or some
other program.

Alfred Blumstein, a leading criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University,
said it was not illogical for the prison population to go up even when the
crime rate goes down.

For one thing, Professor Blumstein said, some crimes considered victimless
are not counted in the Federal Bureau of Investigation's annual report on
the crime rate, including drug crimes, gun possession crimes and immigration

Another reason, Professor Blumstein said, was that it has become
increasingly clear from statistical research that "there is no reason that
the prison count and the crime rate have to be consistent." The crime rate
measures the amount of crime people are suffering from, he said, while the
prison count is a measure of how severely society chooses to deal with
crime, which varies from time to time.

Mr. Beck said he did not believe the sizeable increase in the prison
population last year was the start of a trend back to the big increases of
the 1980's and 1990's, when the number of incarcerated Americans quadrupled.
States do not have the money to build more prisons now, he said, and the
push by a number of states to reduce inmate populations will have some
effect on the numbers.

Among the states that have eased sentencing laws in the past year are
Michigan, which scrapped mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, and
Kansas, Texas and Washington. Several states, including Kansas and
California, have new laws mandating drug treatment rather than prison for
nonviolent drug offenses.

Although many advocates of prison change have blamed drug arrests for the
significant growth in the prison population, the report found violent crimes
responsible for 64 percent of the increase in the number of men in state
prisons from 1995 to 2001. Violent crimes also accounted for 49 percent of
the increase in the number of women in state prisons in those years.
Professor Blumstein said that figure was unusual because women have
generally been convicted of drug and property crimes.

In total, 49 percent of inmates in state prisons last year were serving time
for violent crimes, the report said. Twenty percent were serving time for
drug offenses, 19 percent for property crimes, and 11 percent for
public-order offenses, like drunken driving, parole violations and contempt
of court.

But in the federal prison system, which with 163,528 inmates is now larger
than any state system, 48 percent of the growth in the number of prisoners
from 1995 to 2001 was accounted for by drug crimes and only 9 percent by
violent crimes.

The number of inmates in federal prisons for gun crimes increased by 68
percent from 1995 to 2001, as Congress, President Bill Clinton and President
Bush pushed to federalize some illegal gun possession cases.

In addition to 1.4 million Americans in state and federal prisons in 2002,
665,475 people were in local and county jails and 110,284 were in juvenile
facilities, the report said.

California had the largest number of inmates, with 162,317 followed closely
by Texas, with 162,003.

Louisiana had the highest rate of incarceration, with 794 inmates per
100,000 residents. Maine and Minnesota tied for the lowest incarceration
rate, with 141 inmates per 100,000 residents.
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