While the U.S. crime rate has fallen over the past decade, the number of people in prison and jail is outpacing the number of inmates released, the government reports.
The population of the nation's prisons and jails has grown by about 900 inmates each week between mid-2003 and mid-2004, according to figures released Sunday by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. By last June 30 the system held 2.1 million people, or one in every 138 U.S. residents.
Paige Harrison, the report's co-author, said the increase can be attributed largely to get-tough policies enacted in the 1980s and 1990s. Among them are mandatory drug sentences, "three-strikes-and-you're-out" laws for repeat offenders and "truth-in-sentencing" laws that restrict early releases.
"As a whole most of these policies remain in place," she said. "These policies were a reaction to the rise in crime in the '80s and early '90s."
Malcolm Young, executive director of the Sentencing Project, which promotes alternatives to prison, said, "We're working under the burden of laws and practices that have developed over 30 years that have focused on punishment and prison as our primary response to crime."
He said many of those incarcerated are not serious or violent offenders, but are low-level drug offenders. Young said the prison population could be lowered by introducing drug treatment programs that offer effective ways of changing behavior and by providing appropriate assistance for the mentally ill.
According to the Justice Policy Institute, which advocates a more lenient system of punishment, the United States has a higher rate of incarceration than any other country, followed by Britain, China, France, Japan and Nigeria.
There were 726 inmates for every 100,000 U.S. residents by June 30, 2004, compared with 716 a year earlier, according to the report by the Justice Department agency. In 2004, one in every 138 U.S. residents was in prison or jail; the previous year it was one in every 140.
In 2004, 61 percent of prison and jail inmates were of racial or ethnic minorities, the government said. An estimated 12.6 percent of all black men in their late 20s were in jails or prisons, as were 3.6 percent of Hispanic men and 1.7 percent of white men in that age group, the report said.