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Prison Population Continues Exponential Growth

by David M. Reutter

Two reports by the Department of Justice‘s Bureau of Justice Statistics examined the growth rate of America’s jails and prisons, which are burgeoning at a yearly pace of 2%. That growth resulted in an all-time record of 2.3 million people behind bars on June 30, 2007, making America the largest jailer in the world, both in terms of sheer numbers and as a percentage of its population which is imprisoned.

That population of prisoners is primarily in prisons which hold 1,595,034 people in state and federal gulags. Another 780,581 people are held in local jails on any given day. Those numbers fail to reflect the massive amount of people who cycle through the system each year. For the 12 months ending on June 29, 2007, it is estimated that 13 million people were admitted to local jails. Meanwhile, the nation’s prisons admitted 749,798 prisoners and released 713.473.

The ten states with the largest prisons house more prisoners than the forty other states combined. The top ten are: Texas, California, Florida, New York, Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina. Together, they hold in their prisons 789,700 people, and the other 40 states incarcerate 606,216. Not surprisingly, the top ten also have prestige among the top 50 largest jail jurisdictions.

While the prison and jail populations have continued to trend upward since 2000, the greatest growth rate is in the jail population. From 2000 to midyear 2007, the number of prisoners held in jails increased by 26%, or by 159,433 prisoners. The largest jail jurisdictions accounted for 62% of the growth. On average, jails operate at 96% capacity.

Although prisons grew a little slower, they still exhibit a steady pace of increasing populations. From 2000 to 2006, federal prisons exhibited the biggest rate of growth, swelling by 4.8% a year. In contrast, state prisons grew at 1.7% annually. The majority of that change came in the first six months, and a decrease in population normally occurs in the second half of the year.

On a year-to-year basis, the greatest growth in the jail and prison population came in private facilities. At midyear 2007, there were 118,239 prisoners in privately operated lock-ups, an increase of 5.4% from 2006. The federal government is the biggest entity pursuing private operators, increasing its population in such facilities by 3,271 prisoners, or up 12.1% from June 2006. One-third of the state rate came as 957 prisoners were placed in privately operated prisons.

Of the 2.3 million people in custody, 2.1 million of them were men and 208,300 were women. Black males represented the largest percentage (35.4%) of prisoners, followed by white males (32.9%) and Hispanic males (17.9%). From 2000 to 2007, the number of people in custody rose by 367,200 people. Males accounted for 86% of that increase, while 52,100 more women are behind bars . In that period, 120,000 of the male population (32.7%) came from an increase of Hispanic men in custody. [Editor’s Note: This increase may be due to a change in how “Hispanic” is defined. Many states have, and continue, to view Hispanics as an ethnicity, not a race. Thus states will list a very large white prisoner population that is in fact mostly Hispanic.]

From 2006 to midyear 2007, a large change in imprisonment rates came from juveniles and non-US residents. There were 96,703 non-US citizens in custody at midyear 2007, an increase of 3.7% from 2006. That rates in comparison to the percentage increase for juveniles. The number of persons imprisoned who are under 18 increased by 10.4% to 2,639 in the year.

Admissions to prisons grew substantially from parole violations. About one-third (239,495) of all admissions to state prisons in 2006 were prisoners sentenced for violation of parole or conditions of supervised release. California had both the largest number and percentage increase of admissions for for parole violations. In 2006, 64.9% of all admissions in California were parole violations. Excluding California, parole violations accounted for about 25% of all state prison admissions in 2006.

One statistic demonstrates the “lock ‘em up” politics of our time. In 2000, 684 of every 100,000 US residents were in jail or prison. By midyear 2007, 762 of every 100,000 US residents were behind bars. The projections are for continued exponential growth.
The reports, Jail Inmates at Midyear 2007 and Prison Inmates at Midyear 2007, are available on PLN’s website.

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