More than 5.6 million Americans are in prison or have served time there, says a new U.S. Justice Department report. Sunday. That’s 1 in 37 adults living in the United States, the world’s highest incarceration level, the Christian Science Monitor says. By the end of 2001, 1,319,000 adults were in state or federal prisons. An estimated 4,299,000 ex-inmates are still alive.
“What we are seeing is a substantial involvement of the public in the criminal-justice system. It raises a lot of questions in the national dialogue on everything from voting and sentencing to priorities related to state’s expenditures,” says Allen Beck of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which issued the report.
If current trends continue, it means that a black American male has a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison during his lifetime. For a Hispanic male, it’s 1 in 6; for a white male, 1 in 17. “These new numbers are shocking enough, but what we don’t see are the ripple effects of what they mean: For the generation of black children today, there’s almost an inevitable aspect of going to prison,” says Marc Mauer of The Sentencing Project, an advocacy group based in Washington.
By 2010, the number of American residents in prison or with prison experience is expected to jump to 7.7 million, or 3.4 percent of all adults.
One state contributing to the nation’s high incarceration levels is Florida, where an upsurge in convicts imprisoned on drug charges is occurring after a dramatic reduction in treatment for drug offenders behind bars, the Orlando Sentinel reports. Last week, state legislators approved $66 million in emergency funds to build 4,000 new prison beds.
Critics blame the crowding in part on stricter sentences handed down by a new generation of conservative judges appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush. But Florida drug czar Jim McDonough, a Bush appointee, said some inmates convicted of drug offenses plea-bargain down from more-serious crimes. “It’s not overly harsh drug laws that are filling up our prisons,” McDonough said. “It’s people committing serious crimes.”