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BJS Report Reveals Rising Imprisonment Rates, Trends In 2003

by Michael Rigby

Rising prison populations...record numbers of female prisoners...rampant overcrowding...continuing racial disparities. These are among the disturbing trends revealed by Prisoners in 2003, a Bureau of Justice Statistics report released in November 2004.

At yearend 2003, 1,470,045 prisoners were under the jurisdiction of state and federal authorities, an increase of 2.1% over the previous year. That figure represents an increase of 20,370 state prisoners and 9,531 federal prisoners. The highest percentage growth5.8%was in the federal prison system, which held 173,059 prisoners on December 31, 2003.

By yearend 2003, there were an average of 482 prisoners per 100,000 U.S. residents, up from 411 in 1995. Eleven states exceeded the national average, including Louisiana (801), Mississippi (768), Texas (702), and Oklahoma (636). Nines statesincluding Maine (149), Minnesota (155), and North Dakota (181)had rates that were less than half the national average.
When local jails and other detention facilities were included, the number of prisoners rose to 2,212,475 for an overall imprisonment rate 714 per 100,000, making U.S. imprisonment rates the highest in the world, according to Washington, D.C. based Sentencing Project. Russia ranks second with a declining rate of 484 per 100,000. Most industrialized countries had much lower rates, including Mexico (169), England and Wales (141), and Japan (58).

Eleven states, including North Dakota (+11.4%) and Minnesota (+10.3%), reported increases of at least 5% while 11 more, including Connecticut (-4.2%) and New York (-2.8%), showed slight declines. In addition, 4 prison systems added at least 2,000 prisoners in 2003, including Texas (4,908), Florida (4,384), and California (3,126).

Females comprised the fastest growing segment of prisoners in 2003, increasing at an average rate of 3.6%. (The rate for men was 2.0%.) According to the Sentencing Project, the number of female prisoners increased by 48% over the previous 8 years, from 68,468 in 1995 to 101,179 at yearend 2003. However, imprisonment remains a male dominated phenomenon.
This increase coincides exactly with the inception of the war on drugs," beginning in the 1980s and continuing into the 1990s, said Marc Mauer, assistant director of the Project. It represents a. sort of vicious cycle of women engaged in drug abuse and often connected with financial or psychological dependence with a boyfriend," or other male involved in drug crime, he said. Another explanation is that with determinate sentencing guidelines women who in the past would have received probation or suspended sentences now receive prison sentences with no allowance for their gender.

Racial disparities have remained fairly consistent since 1995, the BJS report found. Among prisoners serving sentences of 1 year or more at yearend 2003, black males (586,300) outnumbered white males (454,300) and Hispanic males (251,900).

Especially high was the number of young black men in prison. Of the total population of black males 25-29, nearly 1 in 10 (9.3%) were in prison at yearend 2003. Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at. Carnegie Mellon University notes that, not only does removing so many young black men from society strongly impact families, but in many ways is self-defeating." The criminal justice system is based on deterrence, with doing prison time supposedly a stigma, he says. But it's tough to convey a sense of stigma when so many of your friends and neighbors are similarly stigmatized.
Overcrowding plagued many prisons in 2003. According to the report, 22 states and the federal system reported operating above 100% of their capacity. Alabama was the most egregious, operating at more than double (109%) its lowest rated capacity, followed by California (+101%), Hawaii (+64%), and Illinois (+59%), and the federal system (+39%).

Private prisonswhich held 6.5% (95,522) of all state and federal prisoners at yearend 2003continued to enjoy their parasitic relationship, no doubt sustained by rampant overcrowding. Individually, 12.6% of all federal prisoners and 5.7% of state prisoners were held in private prisons. Among the states, Texas had the most prisoners in for-profit prisons (16,570), followed by Oklahoma (6,022).

Perhaps the most interesting revelation is that rates of imprisonment have continued to climb despite falling crime rates, showing the lack of a connection between the two. Between 1994 and 2003, arrests for all violent crime dropped 16% while arrests for murder and robbery dropped 36% and 25% respectively, according to Allen J. Beck, one of the report's authors.
Even so, the rate of imprisonment has increased by 49% since 1995, notes the Sentencing Project. The increase is due in large part to tougher sentencing guidelines, including truth in sentencing" laws, three-strikes" laws, and mandatory minimums, according to the Project. As a result, the average time served increased by 30% between 1995 and 2001, which has also contributed to an aging prison population, notes the report and the Project.

A copy of the report (NCJ 205335) is available on the internet at www or by writing NCJRS, P.O. Box 6000, Rockville, Maryland 20849-6000.

Additional sources: The Prison Project, New York Times, Associated Press

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