The number of inmates in state and federal prisons rose 2.1 percent last year, says a new Justice Department count. The New York Times reports that the continuing increase in the prison population, despite a drop or leveling off in the crime rate, is a result of laws passed in the 1990’s that led to more prison sentences and longer terms, said Allen J. Beck of the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. At the end of 2003, there were 1,470,045 men and women in state and federal prisons in the United States. Counting inmates in local jails and incarcerated juvenile offenders, the total number of Americans behind bars was 2,212,475 at the end of last year.
The report estimated that 44 percent of state and federal prisoners in 2003 were black, compared with 35 percent who were white, 19 percent who were Hispanic and 2 percent who were of other races. The number of women in prison is growing fast, rising 3.6 percent in 2003. But at a total of 101,179, they are just 6.9 percent of the prison population. Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University, said one of the most striking findings in the report was that almost 10 percent of all American black men ages 25 to 29 were in prison. “The criminal justice system is built on deterrence, with being sent to prison supposedly a stigma, he said. “But it’s tough to convey a sense of stigma when so many of your friends and neighbors are similarly stigmatized.” Overall, the prison population is aging. Traditionally the great majority of inmates are men in their 20’s and early 30’s, but middle-aged inmates, those 40 to 54, account for about half of the increase in the prison population since 1995.