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Archive for Wednesday, July 31, 2002

Increase in inmates slows; rate for blacks still rising

July 31, 2002

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— The U.S. inmate population in 2001 rose at the slowest pace in almost 30 years, with blacks still far more likely to be incarcerated than whites or Hispanics, the Justice Department said Tuesday.

For every 100,000 people in the United States, 3,535 blacks were locked up, compared with 462 whites and 1,177 Hispanics. One in 10 black men between 25 and 29 were incarcerated on Dec. 31, 2001, while only 2.9 percent of Hispanic men and 1.2 percent of white men in the same age group were in custody.

The Sentencing Project, a group that supports alternatives to incarceration, says the black U.S. inmate population is unprecedented. "If black male inmates in local jails are added, the proportion rises to nearly one in seven," said Marc Mauer, Sentencing Project spokesman.

One reason the number of black inmates continues to rise is the government's war against drugs. Convictions for drug offenses accounted for 27 percent of the increase in black inmates, compared with 7 percent for Hispanic inmates and 15 percent for white inmates, the report said.

States are more likely to lock up people for violent offenses than for drugs, the report said. But the federal government is taking up the slack, with drug crimes accounting for 59 percent of the increase in federal prison inmates even as the percentage of violent offenders dropped to 10 percent from 17 percent, the report said.

"We're still seeing the impact of the drug war and mandatory sentencing," Mauer said. "As long as there is a commitment in the White House and Capitol Hill, we're not going to see any change."

The number of state prison inmates grew in 2001 by only 3,193, or 0.3 percent, to 1,249,038, while the federal prison population expanded by 11,577, or 8 percent, to 156,993. The overall increase was 1.1 percent, the lowest annual rate recorded since 1972, the report said.

States facing budget shortfalls are now more sensitive to the cost of imprisoning people who break the law, Mauer said.

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