Growth In State Prisons Continues: Federal Analyst

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State prison populations continued to grow last year despite efforts by many states to reduce the numbers behind bars in tight budget times. The totals are rising largely because the likelihood of going to prison for serious offenses and staying there longer is higher than it was before the 1990s, says Allen J. Beck of the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The average time served in prison was about five years between 1992 and 2001, compared with only 15 months between 1980 and 1992, Beck told National Committee on Community Corrections in Washington, D.C. In addition, the number of parole violators returned to prison nationally in a year jumped from 134,000 to more than 200,000 between 1990 and 2002, Beck said. As for the chances of going to prison, to take the example of robbery, there were 365 court commitments to prison per 1,000 arrests in 2000, compared with only 233 a decade earlier.

Most of the recent growth in prison population is due to violent offenders, who accounted for 63 percent of the added inmates between 1995 and 2001. Drug offenders comprised only 15 percent of the growtn. Drugs was the one major category in which the risk of imprisonment dropped: it was 79 per 1,000 arrests in 2000 compared with 103 ten years earlier.

Jail populations also are rising, said BJS statistician Jennifer C. Karberg. The total in local jails rose from a little over 500,000 in 1995 to more than 665,000 in 2002. Much of the increase is due to local jails’ holding more inmates for the federal government: nearly 40,000 in 2002.

Probation is another expanding category, with nearly 4 million Americans on probation at the end of 2001, said Beck. Although 70 percent of probationers stay out of trouble, the fact that one third end up returning to the justice system means that the 4 million “include many prisoners of the future,” Beck said.

Overall, more than 3 percent of American adults were incarcerated or under criminal justice supervision in 2002. The likelihood of an American’s going to prison sometime in his or her life more than tripled to 6.6 percent between 1974 and 2001. Among black males, the likelihood of going behind bars during a lifetime is 32.2 percent.

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