U.S. PRISON POPULATION
HITS ALL-TIME HIGH
The U.S. prison population reached a staggering two million people in 2002, according to a report released by the U.S. Department of Justice.
The new figure marks a 2.6 percent increase over the 2001 inmate population.
"The U.S. now locks up its citizens at a rate 5-8 times that of the industrialized nations to which we are most similar, Canada and Western Europe," said Marc Mauer, Assistant Director of The Sentencing Project, a non-profit criminal justice research and advocacy group.
While Canada imprisons 116 people out of every 100,000 in the country, the U.S. locks up 702 people per 100,000.
At the state level, the highest prison populations were in California and Texas, each with over 160,000 inmates. North Dakota had the lowest prison population, at 1,112.
Social and cultural impacts
The racial and gender breakdown of the new statistics also paints a compelling picture. The Bureau of Justice report showed that black males accounted for about a third of all state and federal prison inmates. More than 10 percent of all black men in the U.S. between the ages of 25 and 29 were in prison, compared to just over two percent of Hispanic males and 1.2 percent of white men in that age group.
Women are also being locked up at an increasing rate, according to the Justice Department report; women made up almost seven percent of all prison inmates.
The latest prison population figure did not include probationers - those who commit crimes and are placed in community supervision programs instead of prisons - or parolees - those released from prison into community supervision. As of 2001, almost 4.7 million people were either on probation or parole, placing a total of nearly seven million people under the jurisdiction of federal and state correctional programs.
Causes of the trend
Dan Dunne, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, said the rate of incarceration has not gone up because of increased crime but because of changes at the federal level.
"There have been a great deal more federal investigations, prosecutions and convictions over the last 20 years," Dunne said, "together with new legislation in the 1980s that enforced mandatory sentencing."
Advocacy groups also attribute the increase to aggressive changes in sentencing laws and treatment of drug-related offenses.
"There is a growing consensus among criminal justice researchers both in the U.S. and abroad that policy initiatives play a key role in determining the size and composition of a jurisdiction's or nation's prison population," said Mauer.
One of the best known of these tougher sentencing policies is the "three strikes" law enacted in many states that gives criminals convicted of three felonies mandatory sentences, sometimes as serious as life imprisonment.
The price we pay
The cost to Americans of having such a high incarceration rate comes in many forms.
Combined, state governments shoulder an estimated $40 billion a year tab to operate their prison systems, an expense that often competes with the financial needs of education and other social services, according to a press release from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.
"[California's] Governor Gray Davis (D) has decreed that most government departments must cut their budgets by 15%, including higher education and K-12 education. Yet the Davis administration is plowing ahead with plans to build a $335 million, 5,000-bed maximum security prison at Delano," the release said.
The social costs, called "invisible punishments" by Mauer, are also significant. People convicted of felony drug offenses in certain states are prohibited from public housing, welfare benefits, access to financial aid for education and, in some cases, the right to vote.
As a result of these policies, over four million Americans have lost their right to vote.
What's being done?
As states feel the fiscal pressures of high incarceration rates on their budgets, they are making policy changes to help ease the situation, in some cases loosening the mandatory sentencing requirements because they have become too expensive.
A recent decision in the Indiana State Legislature repealed mandatory minimum sentences in many drug cases, and an amendment to Louisiana's "three strikes" law mandated the first two "strikes" refer only to violent crimes.
"Many of the states have gone through cycles -- three strikes laws, mandatory minimum sentences, raising sentences -- and it's been tremendously expensive," Professor Frank O. Bowman, a law professor at Indiana University, said in a New York Times report. "States have to balance their budgets, and the relative cost of prisons is quite high."
By Angela Munoz, Online NewsHour EXTRA