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U.S. prison population reaches a record 1.8 million

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The number of inmates in the nation's jails and prisons rose again last year, to a record 1.8 million, though crime rates have dropped for seven straight years, the Justice Department reported Sunday.

The number of Americans behind bars increased 76,700, or 4.4 percent, well below the average annual increase of 7.3 percent between 1985 and 1998, suggesting that the dramatic growth in incarceration has at least begun to slow down.But the 1.8 million total means that the incarceration rate has more than doubled since 1985, to 668 inmates per 100,000 residents in 1998, from 313 per 100,000 in 1985, according to the Justice Department. And the total inmate population is almost six times the figure of 330,000 in 1972, before the prison boom started.

The report was prepared by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, a branch of the Justice Department, and was based on the number of inmates on June 30, 1998.

Criminologists and law-enforcement officials generally agree that the substantial growth in the number of inmates has helped reduce crime, at least by keeping more violent criminals off the street. But they believe it is difficult, if not impossible, to measure that impact precisely.

There is growing concern that the prison boom has taken on a life of its own, with a built-in dynamic that will keep the inmate population growing for years even if crime continues to fall, forcing cities and states to divert scarce resources to building ever more jails and prisons.

In a new study of the factors in the continued expansion of the number of prison inmates, Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University, and Allen J. Beck, a prison specialist at the Bureau of Justice Statistics, calculated that 40 percent of the growth was attributable to increases in the number of people actually sent to prison per arrest and 60 percent to longer time served by inmates. The study is to be published this year by the University of Chicago Press.

Blumstein said the increase in commitments to prison per arrest was the result of tougher attitudes toward criminals by both prosecutors and judges.

The longer time served by inmates, Blumstein said, is the result of several things: tougher sentencing laws, longer sentences, greater reluctance by parole boards to grant early release and the increased likelihood that once prisoners are released they will be re-arrested for parole violations, often technical violations like failing a urine test for drugs.

Little of the increase in the number of inmates is the outcome of better police work, making more arrests per crime, or a growth in the number of criminals being sent to prison, he said.

An additional factor driving the number of inmates up even as crime seems to fall, Blumstein said, is that drug arrests are not counted as part of the national crime rate reported by the FBI. That rate includes the violent crimes of murder, robbery, rape and assault and the property crimes of burglary, larceny and automobile theft.

But drug offenses accounted for the greatest share of the increase -- 29 percent -- in state prisoners of any single crime from 1980 to 1996. By comparison, the crime that produced the next largest increase in state inmates was rape, 11 percent, and then murder and assault, each at 10 percent. But all the violent crimes together were responsible for 43 percent of the growth in state imprisonment.

The new Justice Department report found 1,277,866 inmates in state and federal prisons last year, an increase of 4.8 percent from a year earlier, and 592,462 people in local city and county jails, a rise of 4.5 percent.

There were wide regional variations in imprisonment, as in crime, with the Southern states generally having the highest rates, and the states in northern New England and the northern Midwest having the lowest. Louisiana had the highest incarceration rate, 709 inmates per 100,000, followed by Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi and South Carolina. Minnesota had the lowest rate, 117 inmates per 100,000, followed by Maine, North Dakota, Vermont and New Hampshire.

Blacks made up 41.2 percent of the jail inmates in 1998, almost identical to the share by whites, 41.3 percent, the report said. But relative to their proportion of the population, blacks were six times more likely than whites to be held in jail, the report said.

The number of women in state and federal prisons in 1998 rose 5.6 percent over 1997, compared with a 4.7 rise in the number of men in prison. But women still accounted for only 6.4 percent of the total of prisoners nationwide in 1998.