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U.S. prison population hits 2 million

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WASHINGTON — The number of people behind bars in the United States broke the 2 million mark last year, a record high despite the slowest prison population growth rate in 20 years, the Justice Department said Wednesday.

At end of 1999, prisons and jails held 1,890,800 inmates, with the bulk of them held by state authorities, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report. An additional 135,800 people were held in juvenile, military, immigration and other facilities, including those in U.S. territories and commonwealths.

Previous estimates had focused on the combined populations of local jails and state and federal prisons, which are still likely to hit 2 million on their own by the end of 2001, said statistician Allen J. Beck, author of the report.

"There are some indicators of stability that suggest a longer term slowing of growth," Beck said. "I suspect that barring additional sentencing reforms — increasing punishment — we may well soon reach a plateau."

Prisons usually hold convicted criminals sentenced to terms longer than one year, while jails generally keep inmates awaiting trial or serving shorter sentences.

The growth rate of state and federal prison populations slowed to 3.4 percent in 1999, down from 4.7 percent the year before and the lowest since the 2.3 percent growth in 1979. Much of the decline was at the state level, since the growth rate for federal prisons actually increased to 9.9 percent last year from 8.9 percent in 1998.

Longer sentences, particularly for drug offenders, has contributed to the growth in the federal system, Beck said.

The U.S. prison population has grown steadily for more than a quarter-century, helped by increased drug prosecutions and tougher policies against all offenders. Since 1990 the prison population has increased by nearly 600,000 inmates or 77 percent.

Crime rates have been declining since 1993, but longer sentences, especially for drug crimes during the 1980s and for violent crimes in the 1990s, have driven prison populations. More mandatory minimum sentences and declining release rates have also contributed to the increase. The prison population last declined in 1972.

Viewing the latest figures in light of the current U.S. population, one of every 110 men and of every 1,695 women was incarcerated at the end of last year.

The U.S. rate of incarceration is more than six times that of Canada and Australia and five times that of any European Union nation, according to The Sentencing Project, a private group that advocates alternatives to prison.

The largest state increase of prisoner population occurred in Idaho (up 12.9 percent) followed by Wisconsin (up 10.9 percent) and Colorado (up 9.5 percent). Eight states and the District of Columbia had declining numbers of prisoners, led by Rhode Island (down 12.8 percent), the district (down 12 percent) and Massachusetts (down 3.8 percent). Beck noted the decline in the district reflected transfers of prisoners to from local to federal authorities.

California law enforcement officials reported last month that their prison population had declined slightly since the middle of last year, the first decrease after two decades of spiraling growth.

The Justice Department report also found that at the end of last year:

— About one in every 11 black males in their late 20s was serving a sentence of a year or more in a state or federal prison.

— Privately operated facilities held 71,200 prisoners.

— Texas operated the largest prison system with more than 163,000 inmates, followed closely by California. These two states combined with the federal system held one-third of the nation's prisoners.

Web site: www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/