Washington — The number of people behind bars in the United States broke the 2 million mark last year, a record high despite the slowest prison population growth rate in 20 years, the Justice Department said Wednesday.
At end of 1999, prisons and jails held 1,890,800 inmates, with the bulk of them held by state authorities, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report. An additional 135,800 people were held in juvenile, military, immigration and other facilities, including those in U.S. territories and commonwealths.
Previous estimates had focused on the combined populations of jails and state and federal prisons, which are still likely to hit 2 million on their own by the end of 2001, said statistician Allen Beck, author of the report.
Longer sentences, particularly for drug offenders, have contributed to the growth in the federal system, Beck said.
The U.S. prison population has grown steadily for more than a quarter-century, helped by increased drug prosecutions and tougher policies against all offenders. Since 1990 the prison population has increased by nearly 600,000 inmates or 77 percent.
Crime rates have been declining since 1993, but longer sentences, especially for drug crimes during the 1980s and for violent crimes in the 1990s, have driven prisoner populations.
Viewing the latest figures in light of the current U.S. population, one of every 110 men and of every 1,695 women was incarcerated at the end of last year.
The largest state increase of prisoner population occurred in Idaho (up 12.9 percent) followed by Wisconsin (up 10.9 percent) and Colorado (up 9.5 percent). Eight states and the District of Columbia had declining numbers of prisoners, led by Rhode Island (down 12.8 percent), the District (down 12 percent) and Massachusetts (down 3.8 percent).