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Utah prison population sees surge

Numbers grew faster in 2003 than did the nation's

WASHINGTON — Utah's prison population grew 65 percent faster than the national average last year — and that was while the nation's prison population overall was skyrocketing to its largest increase in four years.

At midyear 2003, Utah's prison population grew to 5,594 — up from 5,353 a year earlier on June 30, 2002.

That increase of 4.5 percent for that 12-month period came while the national average was a 2.9 percent increase. Utah had the 12th largest increase by percentage among the states.

That is according to information released Thursday by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. While it is the most up-to-date information available for comparative purposes, it is almost a year old.

The bureau said the nation's prisons held 2.08 million men and women on June 30, 2003 — an increase of 57,600 inmates from a year earlier. Populations in federal prisons increased by 5.4 percent in that time, while state prisons increased by 2.6 percent.

Overall, it was the largest increase by percentage nationally in four years.

In the 11 months since the last study data was recorded, Utah's prison population has been as high as 5,850 (about six months ago), said Utah Department of Corrections spokesman Jack Ford. On Thursday, the population was 5,750.

Both numbers are well above the June 2003 total, but overall are still within the population shift projected by prison officials for fiscal year '03-04, Ford said.

On average the prison has been growing by between 240 and 250 inmates annually over the past few years, he said. The women's population in particular has been on a steady rise, even forcing the early release of some prisoners in February.

But there's more to the story than just the face-value of the numbers, Ford said.

For example the overall 4.5 percent growth between 2002 and 2003 may look significant, but only 0.5 percent of it occurred during the last six months of the fiscal year. That came on the heels of two "flat" years, when the number of inmates saw no significant increases, something Ford said is the result of an aggressive program to help better prepare inmates to re-enter society and then stay on track once they're there.

Under the re-entry program, parolees returning to prison has dropped from about 60 percent to under 50 percent, he said.

In spite of any recent growth, Utah still has far fewer residents behind bars than many other states.

Ranked eighth in the nation for lowest rate of incarceration, Utah has about 234 people in prison per 100,000 residents. That's less than half the national average of 480.

The states with the biggest growth in prison population by percentage for the study period were: Vermont, 12.2 percent; Minnesota, 9.4 percent; Maine, 9.1 percent; Mississippi, 6.5 percent; and Arizona, 5.6 percent.

Several states saw their prison populations decline in the period. Those with the largest decreases by percentage were: Rhode Island, -3.4 percent; Arkansas, -2.2 percent; Montana, -1.8 percent; New York, -1.8 percent; and Delaware, -1.1 percent.

The states with the lowest incarceration rates are: Maine, 148 per 100,000; Minnesota, 150; North Dakota, 175; Rhode Island, 187; and New Hampshire, 193.

The states with the highest incarceration rates are: Louisiana, 803 per 100,000; Texas, 692; Mississippi, 688; Oklahoma, 645; and Alabama, 612.