Confounding Critics, Nation’s Prison Population Rises


Breaking a four-year trend, the nation’s prison population rose again last year, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics said today.

The news disappointed advocates of reducing “mass incarceration” in the U.S., who had expressed hope that after rising relentlessly for three decades, the inmate count had started an equally consistent downward slide.

The new data dashed this hope, at least for now. The national total rose by 4,300 in 2013 to 1,574,700. Prisoner numbers went up in 27 states, an indication that tough sentencing continues in the courts even in an era of lower crime rates.

With at least 700,000 in local jails, not included in today’s report, the national total behind bars remains well over 2 million.

Malcolm Young, a sentencing expert based in Washington, D.C., said he was “flabbergasted” by the rise, considering that there had been a decrease in sentenced prisoners in the states of nearly 50,000 in the three years starting in 2009.

Despite reforms in various states and the six-year-old federal Second Chance Act inmate re-entry initiative, noted that only six states had fewer prisoners at the end of last year than in 2000, Young said.

In previous years, Congress’ failure to stabilize sentences was considered by analysts the primary reason for the continued expansion of federal prison rolls That wasn’t a factor last year, however, as the number held in federal facilities fell by 1,900.

Much of the 2013 national increase was due to higher counts in states with the most prisoners to begin with: 2 percent in Texas, 1 percent in California, and 1 percent in Florida.

“These figures challenge premature and overly optimistic forecasts of the end of mass incarceration,” said Marc Mauer, Executive Director of the Washington, D.C.-based Sentencing Project, which long has advocated for putting fewer Americans in prison.

It’s possible that the 2013 rise will prove to be a one-year blip, but it’s just as likely that the numbers will continue on an upward path.

The explanation lies in California, which historically has had one of the highest state prisoner counts.

In 2011, the Supreme Court narrowly upheld a lower-court ruling that the state must cut its inmate total significantly in order to provide a level of health care to prisoners guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

California Gov. Jerry Brown responded with a “realignment” plan that shifted responsibility for thousands of inmates to counties, an action that quickly reduced the state prison count. When federal officials tallied the numbers last year for the report that was issued today, the California numbers actually had risen again, although only slightly.

One reason U.S. prison numbers remain stubbornly high is that many prisoners are not released because they are serving life sentences, or are serving terms so long that they are virtual life sentences.

Yet the national increase is due largely to the simple fact that 9,000 more people entered state prison last year than were released, the first such rise since 2009.

Given that crime rates overall are down, the continuing large numbers being sent to prison indicate that many mandatory prison sentence laws remain in effect, and efforts to provide alternatives to incarceration are yet to take hold widely in many places.

“This increase is a clear sign that we’re not doing what it takes to reduce our incarceration,” said Young.

The rise in Texas prisoners is notable, because sentencing reformers have been holding out the historically tough on crime state as a leading example of reforms in correctional practices, including increased drug treatment.

Last year, Scott Henson, whose Grits for Breakfast blog in Austin follows state prison issues, observed, that “Texas justifiably gets a lot of credit in the national press for its ‘smart on crime’ probation reforms from 2007,” but the state legislature “has done very little” since then to continue reducing the prison population. The state has closed three prison facilities in recent years but still has more than 100.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report He welcomes comments from readers

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