Archive for Monday, July 28, 2003

Growing prison populations challenge cash-strapped states

July 28, 2003


— America's prison population grew again in 2002 despite a declining crime rate, costing the federal government and states an estimated $40 billion a year at a time of rampant budget shortfalls.

The inmate population in 2002 of more than 2.1 million represented a 2.6 percent increase over 2001, according to a report released Sunday by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Preliminary FBI statistics showed a 0.2 percent drop in overall crime during the same span.

Experts say mandatory sentences, especially for nonviolent drug offenders, are a major reason inmate populations have risen for 30 years. About one of every 143 U.S. residents was in the federal, state or local custody at year's end.

"The nation needs to break the chains of our addiction to prison, and find less costly and more effective policies like treatment," said Will Harrell, executive director of the Texas American Civil Liberties Union.

Even as these costs climb, the federal government is tackling a giant budget deficit and 31 states this year are cutting spending -- most often across all programs -- to deal with shortfalls, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

"The prison population and budget figures, taken together, should be setting off alarm bells in state capitols," said Jason Zeidenberg, director of policy and research for the Justice Policy Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on ending reliance on incarceration.

Drug offenders now make up more than half of all federal prisoners. The federal penal system, which has tough sentencing policies for drug offenses, is now the nation's largest at more than 151,600 -- an increase of 4.2 percent compared with 2001.

A Justice Department report found that 17 states reported increases of at least 5 percent year-to-year in their prison populations, with Maine's increasing by 11.5 percent and Rhode Island's rising 8.6 percent. The federal prisons and almost all state corrections systems are over their capacities, with 71,000 offenders serving sentences in local jails.

Other key points in the report:

Kansas had 8,935 prisoners under the jurisdiction of state or federal correctional authorities in 2002, up from 8,577 in 2001, a change of 4.2 percent. The national average in 2002 was an increase of 2.6 percent.Source: Bureau of Justice
  • As of Dec. 31, there were 97,491 women in state or federal prisons, or about 6.8 percent of all inmates and one in every 1,656 women. There were more than 1.3 million male inmates, or about one in 110 men.
  • About 10 percent of black men between 25 and 29 were incarcerated last year, compared with 1.2 percent of white men and 2.4 percent of Hispanic men.

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