The U.S. imprisonment rate has gone up 22 percent since 1989 and is now at least five times greater than that of most other industrialized nations, according to an international study.
The rate of 519 prisoners for every 100,000 Americans was topped only by Russia's 558 per 100,000 among the 52 nations surveyed by The Sentencing Project, a group that promotes alternatives to incarceration.The study found there are 1.3 million inmates in American prisons and jails, costing the nation $26.8 billion annually. It said the 583,000 black men in prison exceeds the 537,000 black men enrolled in higher education.
And it said the doubling of the inmate population since 1980 has had little impact on violent crime. "There is no reason to believe that continuing to build and fill more prisons will stop the crime and violence in our communities," said Marc Mauer, assistant director of the organization and author of the report.
Construction of new prisons is a cornerstone of the $30 billion crime bill President Clinton was signing Tuesday after a drawn-out battle in Congress over how to divide anti-crime funding between prevention and increased law enforcement.
After the United States and Russia, South Africa had the third-highest rate with 368 in prison for every 100,000 people. The report said black men in the United States are incarcerated at more than four times the rate of black males in South Africa - 3,822 per 100,000 vs. 851 per 100,000.
Among other industrialized nations, the rate was 116 per 100,000 population in Canada, 93 in England, 80 in Germany and 36 in Japan.
The report said two previous studies had found the United States ahead of the Soviet Union in incarceration rates, but Russia has passed the United States with the rise of organized crime and political instability there. No reliable figures were available for China, believed to have the world's largest prison population.
Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., chairman of the House Government Operations Committee, said the report shows that "simply making sentences longer and building more and more prisons will do absolutely nothing to make our streets any safer."
With the world's second-highest rate of imprisonment, the United States "has become the Avis of incarceration: `We try harder' to imprison," said Conyers, a senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
"We have grossly overestimated the positive impact of imprisonment, and unfortunately, we are still repeating the error."