Reflecting a 15-year trend, the number of Americans behind bars or on probation or parole climbed to a record 5.1 million last year, amid both overcrowded jails and prisons and increased community supervision of criminals, a Justice Department study reported Sunday.
A total of 2.7 percent of the nation’s population was either locked up or under legal supervision at the end of 1994, the department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics found. Nearly three-quarters of those in the criminal justice system were on probation or parole in the community rather than serving time in prison or jail cells.
Since 1980, state and federal prison populations have skyrocketed by 213 percent and probation rolls have jumped by 165 percent. The average annual rate of growth has been 7.6 percent; the figure for 1994 was 3.9 percent.
Criminal justice experts said that the sharp increases reflect tougher sentencing on a range of crimes as well as a greater proportion of drug arrests involving longer prison terms.
At the same time, they said the consequent pressure to ease congestion in packed prisons and jails has lead to expanded use of alternatives to incarceration or early release.
Alfred A. Blumstein, a criminologist at the Heinz School of Public Policy and Management at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa., said he believes the criminal justice system “may be overextending itself” and that increased emphasis on such programs as drug treatment and prevention may be more effective in the long run than meting out harsher sentences.