After two decades of massive growth, the U.S. prison population began to level off in the first six years of this century, say 2006 census statistics reported by the Washington post. At nearly 2.1 million, the number of adults in correctional institutions remains at an all-time high. That figure represents a 4 percent rise since 2000 — nowhere near the 77 percent spike in the prison population from 1990 to 2000. The data, from the yearly American Community Survey, represent the Census Bureau’s first in-depth look at people in prisons since the 1980 census.
Tougher sentencing laws helped produce an an explosion in the prison population even as crime rates began to drop. “The growth wasn’t really about increasing crime but how we chose to respond to crime,” said Allen Beck, deputy director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics. “When you increase the likelihood of a person going to prison for a conviction, and then you increase how long you keep them there, it has a profound effect.” Many felons locked up in the 1990s are completing their sentences. “All those people who were in prison are starting to come out.  So the number that is going in is approaching the number going out,” said Christy Visher of the Urban Institute. The prison population might start to decline if it weren’t for the high recidivism rate of those released: About half return to prison within three years. With a recent uptick in the crime rate, and increasing numbers of offenders being placed on probation, Beck said the prison population may begin to rise again significantly.