Pubdate: Mon, 16 Aug 1999
Source: San Jose Mercury News (CA)
Copyright: 1999 Mercury Center
Author: John Balz
Related:  More articles on incarceration are available at 


1.3 Million Prisoners, But Growth Rate Slows

WASHINGTON -- The population of the United States' prisons increased to a
record 1.3 million last year, but the rate of growth slowed somewhat in the
country as a whole, the Justice Department reported Sunday.

At the end of 1998, state and federal prisons housed 59,866 more inmates
than a year earlier. While the increase was the greatest since 1995, the
4.8 percent growth rate was down from 5.0 percent in 1997 and considerably
lower than the decade's annual average of 6.7 percent.

Mississippi prisons had the highest inmate population growth rate in the
country, almost 17 percent.

California's prison population grew by almost 3.9 percent in 1998 -- more
than 6,000 inmates -- to a total of about 162,000. The state's penitentiary
system, the most crowded in the country, has twice as many prisoners as cells.

With more prisoners spending more time behind bars, California corrections
officials said overcrowding remains a serious problem that won't end any
time soon. The California Department of Corrections is in the midst of a $5
billion prison building program.

But Lance Corcoran, vice president of the California Correctional Peace
Officers Association, which lobbies for the Department of Corrections in
the state Legislature, said California "can't build its way out of this

State legislators and corrections officials need to come up with
alternative sentencing for offenders of less serious crimes, better
rehabilitation centers and a more extensive house arrest program to reduce
overcrowding, he said.

U.S. Justice Department officials and criminal justice experts said last
year's overall growth reflects a continuing imbalance between the effects
of anti-crime initiatives and a shortage of available prison beds.

While crime rates are dropping, "three strikes" laws and other sentencing
reforms have made it more likely that convicted criminals will go to
prison, said Allen Beck, co-author of the Justice Department report. Once
they are behind bars, they are likely to serve longer sentences.

The national average for length of time served in prison increased from 22
months in 1990 to 27 months in 1997, the most recent year for which figures
are available.

A 40 percent increase in the number of offenders returned to prison for
violating parole also has contributed to growing inmate rolls, Beck said.
About 47 percent of prisoners are serving time for violent crimes.

Although the rate of growth in the prison population declined last year,
government officials were quick to stress that there is a steady increase
in the number of inmates.

"The (growth) rates going down are deceptive," said Christopher Mumola, an
analyst in the Bureau of Justice Statistics. "People think it must be
getting better, but in terms of prisoners going into the system, that's not
the case at all."

Jenni Gainsborough, a spokeswoman for Washington-based Sentencing Project,
which follows nationwide inmate populations, said the increase clearly
shows that correctional facilities are ``horribly strained."

"Politicians have stuck to this mantra that you've got to be tough on crime
and until someone says `Wait, what is the best way to stand up for public
policy while finding alternatives,' things will continue down this path,"
she said. The federal prison population grew about 9 percent last year,
more than twice the rate in state prisons. The nation's rate of prison
incarceration is now at 461 inmates per 100,000 residents, up from 292 in 1990. 
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