Number of People in State Prisons Declines Slightly

from The New York Times, Aug. 13, 2001


The number of inmates in state prisons fell in the second half of last year, the first such decline since the nation’s prison boom began in 1972, says a Justice Department report released yesterday.

The decline was modest, a drop of 6,200 inmates in state prisons in the last six months of 2000, or 0.5 percent of the total, the report said. But it came after the number of state prisoners rose 500 percent over the last three decades, even growing each year in the 1990’s as crime dropped. The total number of people incarcerated in state and federal prisons, local jails and juvenile detention centers was 2,071,686 at the end of 2000, the report said.

“I think it is a very significant development,” said Alfred Blumstein, a professor of criminology at Carnegie Mellon University and one of the nation’s most respected experts on prisons. “It is really the first change in direction in 30 years in the march towards incarceration.”

Experts attributed the drop to several factors: the continuing decline in crime, which began in 1992; new attitudes about offering drug offenders treatment instead of locking them up; and a greater willingness by parole officers to help parolees instead of sending them back to prison for minor infractions.

“If this trend continues, it could be a real change in the most important vector that has been driving the American criminal justice system for 30 years,” said Franklin Zimring, a professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley. It has been the explosive growth of prisons, more than efforts by the police, or changes in the law or tougher sentences by judges that has been “the most dominant characteristic of the American criminal justice system” in the last three decades, Professor Zimring said.

In 1972, he noted, after 50 years of stability in the incarceration rate, 200,000 Americans were in state and federal prisons. Now 1.3 million are.

Law enforcement officials and criminologists cautioned that the drop in the second half of 2000 was not long enough to make a trend. In fact, for all of 2000, counting state and federal prisons, the number of inmates actually grew 1.3 percent, the report said. But that is well below the average growth rate of 6 percent in the 1990’s and the lowest rate of increase since 1972, the report said.

At the end of 2000, there were 1,236,476 people in state prisons and 145,416 federal prisoners.

What seems to be happening, said Allen J. Beck, the main author of the report, which was released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, is that the rate of growth in prisoners has been slowing for several years and has now reached a point where it is stable. It is too early to tell whether the slowdown will continue and lead to a real decline in the number of inmates, Mr. Beck said.

But a decline in the number of inmates could be bad news for private prison companies, whose stock prices depend on a steadily growing number of inmates, and for some prison guards unions, like the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. The association has been the biggest contributor to a number of California politicians and the most powerful force in the state pushing for tougher sentencing laws, like California’s “three strikes and you’re out” statute.

John Ferguson, the president and chief executive office of the Corrections Corporation of America, the largest for-profit prison company, said he had seen some “softness in demand” in Texas, or a decrease in the number of inmates. But Mr. Ferguson predicted that in the long term the private prison business would continue to flourish because the federal prison system was projected to continue to grow.

In addition, he said, some states like Alabama, which are keeping state prisoners in local jails, will have to move them to regular prisons, and some states with very old prisons will find it cheaper to replace them with privately run prisons.

The report also said that among the 1.3 million people in state and federal prisons there were 428,000 black men 20 through 29 years old, or 9.7 percent of the total black men in that age group. That compares with 2.9 percent of Hispanic men and 1.1 percent of non-Hispanic white men in that age group who were in prison.

The report said there were 44,000 whites in prison for murder, compared with 70,700 blacks, and 50,700 whites in prison for drug offenses, compared with 144,700 blacks; there are 33,800 whites in prison for robbery compared with 97,300 blacks. Blacks make up 12 percent of the United States population. The racial disparities are more pronounced than they appear in these figures, Professor Blumstein said.

The even greater over-representation of blacks in prison than the number being arrested for drug crimes is partly a result of the tougher sentences for crack cocaine than for powdered cocaine, Professor Blumstein said. Crack is more commonly dealt by blacks, and powdered cocaine is more commonly dealt by whites.

But the discrepancies also reflect differences in prior arrest records and some level of racism, he said.

The three states with the highest incarceration rates, the report found, were Louisiana, with 801 prisoners per 100,000 residents; Texas, with 730 inmates per 100,000; and Mississippi, with 688 inmates per 100,000. The states with the lowest incarceration rates were Minnesota, with 128 inmates per 100,000 residents; Maine, with 129 inmates per 100,000; and North Dakota, with 158 inmates per 100,000.