The war on drugs and violent crime nearly tripled the state and federal inmate population from 1980 to a record 948,881 last year, and even stiffer prison sentences are on the way.
But despite the inmate population boom, "I don't know anyone now who feels safer than 20 years ago," said Marc Mauer, assistant director of The Sentencing Project, a foundation-supported group that advocates alternatives to prison.Reporting on inmate populations at the end of 1993, the Justice Department said Wednesday that the incarceration rate for prisoners sentenced to more than a year also set a record - 351 per 100,000 residents.
The report said Utah had 2,888 inmates at the end of 1993, a 7 percent increase over the end of 1992.
The United States locks up a larger portion of its people than any other nation. In 1992, 455 of every 100,000 Americans were in prison or jail; South Africa under its old government was next, at 311 per 100,000.
"Suddenly, we've gone wild on incarceration, but there is no clear impact on crime rates," said Alfred Blumstein, a professor at Carnegie-Mellon University.
U.S. incarceration rates remained around 110 inmates per 100,000 people from the 1920s through 1970s, Blumstein said, "then in the 1980s began shooting straight up." But over the past 20 years, he said, "murder rates have remained absolutely flat, robbery has grown about 1 percent per year and burglary has declined somewhat."
Mauer observed that "the politics of the crime bill shows the data don't have much impact on the debate."
House and Senate crime bills, now headed for compromise negotiations, would stiffen the penalties for dozens of crimes and provide billions of additional dollars for prison construction.