New York Times
August 10, 2000

Number in Prison Population Grows Despite Crime Reduction

By Fox Butterfield

WASHINGTON -- After an eight-year drop in crime, the population of the nation's state and federal prisons grew last year at the lowest rate since 1979, 3.4 percent, the Justice Department reported yesterday.

The main reasons the prison population has increased even as crime has declined, the report said, are that the number of inmates returned to prison for parole violations increased, the length of the average sentence rose, and drug crimes, which are not included in the overall crime rate computed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, did not drop.

The number of inmates returned to prison after being released on parole during the 1990's grew by 54 percent, as parole agents became tougher about revoking parole for technical violations like failing a drug test. By contrast, the number of criminals sent to prison for new convictions rose only 7 percent.

The average length of time served was 28 months in 1998, up from 20 months in 1990, the report said, the result of tougher sentencing laws.

The report also found that the total number of Americans in all jails and prisons surpassed two million for the first time, reaching 2,026,596 at the end of 1999, the report said.

The report also found that Texas, which has been on a record-setting prison expansion under Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican presidential candidate, passed California as the state with the most prison inmates, though Texas has a much smaller population, 20 million people compared with 32 million in California. At the end of 1999, Texas had 163,190 inmates and California, 163,067.

In addition, the report said 9.4 percent of black men ages 25 to 29 were in state and federal prisons in 1999, almost 10 times the rate for white men in their late 20's, which was 1 percent. Among Hispanic males in their late 20's, 3.1 percent were in prison.

While the report highlighted the racial disparities in prison, it contradicted an assertion of advocates of prison and drug sentencing reform, who say most prisoners are locked up for drug arrests. In fact, the Justice Department found, people who had been convicted of violent crimes accounted for 51 percent of the increase in state prison populations from 1990 to 1998.

Drug offenses accounted for 19 percent of the increase, property crimes accounted for 15 percent, and various other crimes accounted for 15 percent.

Altogether, in 1998, there were 545,200 state prison inmates serving time for violent offenses -- including murder, robbery, assault and rape -- compared with 242,900 for property crimes -- including burglary, auto theft and fraud -- and 236,800 for drug crimes.

Prisoners sentenced for drug crimes do predominate, the report said, in the federal system. Of the 108,925 federal inmates in 1998, 30,470 were sentenced for drug crimes, compared with 9,557 for violent crimes and 7,935 for property crimes.

Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University, said a major finding of the study, written by Allen J. Beck of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, was that the continued growth of the prison population was driven by the huge increase in the number of parolees being returned to prison.

The report says most of those returning parolees have committed new crimes.

But Professor Blumstein said that the parole system had gotten tougher and that more parolees were being returned for violations like failing a monthly urine test for drugs.

The 3.4 percent increase in inmates in state and federal prisons in 1999 -- to 1.37 million -- was well below the average annual growth rate during the 1990's, of 6.5 percent, the new report said. The growth rate hit a high of 8.7 percent in 1994, well after the crime wave of the late 1980's and early 1990's began to decline in 1991, falling gradually for the rest of the decade.

There are 690 prisoners per 100,000 United States residents, according to The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit prison research and advocacy organization in Washington. That rate is six times that of Canada and Australia, which are both around 110 prisoners per 100,000 residents, the project said, and five times that of any country in the European Union.

One major issue that the Justice Department's study did not address was whether there was any relationship between growth in the incarceration rate and the drop in crime. Advocates of tougher prosecution and sentencing say the huge growth in imprisonment, with the incarceration rate quadrupling since 1980, has been largely responsible for the decrease in crime.

But Professor Blumstein said crime rates were also going up sharply in the late 1980's when prison population was increasing as well.

Some other factors that must also be considered, he said, were the improved economy in the 1990's, better police tactics and the waning of the crack cocaine epidemic.

On the Net:

Bureau of Justice Statistics:

Copyright 2000 New York Times Company. All rights reserved.