US Prison Population Leveling Off, Feds Drive Small Increase 8/2/02

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3. US Prison Population Leveling Off, Feds Drive Small Increase

While the states, faced with growing budget deficits and drug war fatigue, are beginning to rethink their approaches to crime and sentencing and decrease their prison populations, the federal prison system is still growing at a rapid clip, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics' latest review of the data. According to "Prisoners in 2001," released this week, state prison populations grew by only 3,193 people during 2001, an increase of 0.3% over 2000. In the last half of 2002, the total number of state prisoners actually declined by 3,700 persons -- a decline of 0.3% and a possible harbinger of a growing exodus from the state prisons.

The federal prison system, on the other hand, continued its rapid expansion, adding 11,557 inmates, a startling 8.0% increase over the previous year. Drug war prisoners constitute a majority of all federal prisoners, accounting for 57% of all federal inmates.

The US prison and jail population -- state and federal -- has now climbed to more than 2.1 million persons, yet another all-time high, the report noted.

But despite the continued swelling of the federal prison population, some key states have moved to reduce their prison populations through sentencing reforms, changes in parole and probation rules, and other measures. Prison populations actually decreased in 10 states, led by New Jersey (down 5.5%), followed by Utah (-5.2%), New York (- 3.8%), and Texas (-2.8%). Oddly, all of the states showing the largest increases in prison population during 2001 except one are in the Pacific West. While West Virginia had the largest percentage increase (up 9.3%), the next four biggest percentage increases were in Alaska (8.9%), Idaho (8.5%), Oregon (8.3%) and Hawaii (7.9%).

Other highlights from the report:

  • The federal prison system is now the third largest system in the country and will be the nation's largest by year's end if present trends continue. Texas is largest, with 162,070 prisoners at the end of 2002; then California, with 159,444; then the federal Bureau of Prisons.
  • Some 22 state prisons are operating at between 1% and 16% over capacity, while the federal system is at 31% above capacity.
  • More than 585,000 black males are in prison. Black non-hispanic inmates are the largest ethnic group in the prisons, representing 44% of all prisoners. 10% of all black males between 25 and 29 were behind bars at the end of 2001.
  • Drug offenders made up 20% of the growth in state prison populations in the last decade. More than 250,000 were serving time in state prison at the end of 2001. Drug offenders constituted 57% of the total federal prison population, up from 53% in 1990.
  • The overall incarceration rate reached a new high of 686 per 100,000 citizens, leaving the US secure in its position of worldwide leader in imprisonment. One out of every 146 residents of the US was behind bars at the end of 2001.
To see the Bureau of Justice Statistics report, go to and linked pages.

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Issue #248, 8/2/02 Editorial: Getting from Here to There | Despite Supreme Court Ruling, No Wave of High School Drug Testing Foreseen | US Prison Population Leveling Off, Feds Drive Small Increase | Needle Exchange 2002:00:00 A Long Way Traveled, A Long Way to Go | Baltimore Killings Continue as Politicians Continue to Ignore Role of Prohibition | Stossel Special Spurs War of Letters to ABC | Newsbrief: Cooking Speed Equals Child Abuse Under New Tennessee Law | Massachusetts Governor Vetoes Decriminalization Provisions | Newsbrief: Afghan Crop Report Says Opium Eradication a Joke | Newsbrief: Leading British Comedian Says Legalize It All | Newsbrief: Alabama Rape Victim Ordered to Provide Urine Sample for Drug Test | Newsbrief: Tennessee School Board Ordered to Back Off on Zero Tolerance -- Right to Public Education at Issue | Newsbrief: Seattle Marijuana Enforcement Initiative Signatures Submitted | Web Scan:, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, Harry Levine, Ethan Nadelmann, Medical Marijuana Research, School Daily | Legislative Alerts: Rave Bill, Medical Marijuana, Higher Education Act Drug Provision | The Reformer's Calendar

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