WASHINGTON -- The United States could soon surpass Russia to become the nation with the highest rate of imprisonment.
According to a new Justice Department survey, the number of jailed Americans more than doubled over the past 12 years and reached its highest level ever last year.At mid-1998, jails and prisons held an estimated 1.8 million people, according to a Bureau of Justice statistics report released Sunday. At the end of 1985, the figure was 744,208.
There were 668 inmates for every 100,000 U.S. residents as of June 1998, compared with 313 inmates per 100,000 people in 1985.
In Russia, 685 people out of every 100,000 are behind bars, according to The Sentencing Project, a U.S. group critical of the general trend toward harsher sentencing of American criminals.
A planned amnesty of 100,000 prisoners in Russia and the expectation of continued increases in the U.S. inmate population means the United States probably will become the world's leading jailer within the next two years, said Jenni Gainsborough, a Sentencing Project spokeswoman.
The number of people imprisoned in the United States has grown for more than a quarter-century, helped by increased drug prosecutions and a general get-tough policy on all classes of offenders.
More criminals serving longer sentences led the inmate population to top 1 million in 1990; it has continued to rise.
About two-thirds of the nation's inmates are in state and federal prisons; the remaining one-third are in local jails.
Prisons generally hold convicted criminals sentenced to terms longer than one year, while jails typically keep those awaiting trial and those sentenced to 12 months or less.
In the June 1998 Justice Department survey, 1.2 million people were held in prisons, while local jails held about 600,000 men and women. Local jails also supervised more than 72,000 people under various outside work, treatment or home detention programs.
The survey showed the total number of people behind bars grew by 4.4 percent from June 1997.
Between the end of 1990 and mid-1998, the incarcerated population grew an average 6.2 percent annually, said the report's author, statistician Darrell Gilliard.