The nation’s prison population has just shown its largest one-year increase ever, making the United States first in the world when it comes to locking up its citizens, the Department of Justice announced Sunday.
In the 12 months ending June 30, a record 89,707 prison inmates were added, for a record total of more than 1.1 million. Combined with some 484,000 jail inmates, the total topped 1.5 million adults behind bars, the department said.
That gave the United States an incarceration rate of 565 per 100,000 people, edging out the latest figure for Russia, which had been the world leader, according to the Sentencing Project, a non-profit research group.
Nationwide, state prison inmates increased by 9 percent and federal prisoners by 6 percent, the equivalent of adding 1,725 new prison beds each week.
It seems that the increase in prison beds, up almost 300 percent since 1980, has helped at least in part to ease crime.
Last year was the third straight year of decreases in the crime rate, which dropped 7.7 percent since 1991, the FBI said.
“Obviously there is some linkage” between the crime drops and the higher use of prisons, said Allen Beck, a Justice Department statistician who co-authored the report.
But Beck noted that the percentage drop in crime is nowhere near the increase in prisoners, and the impact prison use has on cutting crime remains a matter of great debate.
On one hand, some experts contend that prisons are key to stopping crime, particularly when hard-core violent criminals are incarcerated.
A Virginia study found that 76 percent of aggravated assaults and 81 percent of robberies were committed by repeat offenders, said Princeton University criminologist John DiIulio Jr. Nationwide, 35 percent of those arrested for violent crimes were on probation, parole, or pretrial release at the time of their arrests, he noted.
Those new crimes could have been prevented, said DiIulio, if the criminals had been behind bars instead.
Others, though, argue that prison use doesn’t always have a clear impact.
Incarceration increased by 65 percent between 1980 and 1986, and violent crime dropped those years by 16 percent, said Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project.
But when prison use increased by another 51 percent between 1986 and 1991, violent crime went back up by 15 percent, Mauer said. “You had essentially opposite trends,” he noted.
“I would never say that incarceration has no effect. Clearly if you locked up everybody, you’d have no crime,” he said. But he added that even when dangerous criminals are imprisoned, it doesn’t stop younger criminals from taking their place.
DiIulio countered by citing a study that found that the dramatic rise in prison use between 1975 and 1989 reduced crime by 10 percent to 15 percent, compared to what it would have been, preventing “390,000 murders, rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults in 1989 alone.”
Yet even he said that locking up low-level drug dealers does “almost nothing” to the crime rate.
The percentage of state prisoners in for drug offenses rose from 9 percent in 1980 to 25 percent by 1993; in federal prisons, it went from 25 percent to 60 percent, said Beck.
Some argue that even if prisons help cut crime, they do so at great expense. Beck estimated that the yearly cost of keeping someone in state or federal prison is about $18,000. Jails, where prisoners generally await trial or serve sentences of less than a year, cost about $16,000 per inmate annually, he said.
Many experts contend that millions, even billions, could eventually be saved if money was directed into education and other means of reaching youths before they become criminal. Others contend that drug treatment is a far cheaper alternative to prison for addicts convicted of drug crimes.
Throughout the United States, the rise was most extreme for African Americans; black men are now imprisoned at eight times the rate of white men.
Mauer argued that that has a “devastating impact” on young black males, who are left without men to guide them.
Among the states, Texas led the way with a 27 percent increase and now imprisons 659 Texans per 100,000. North Dakota had the lowest rate, 90 per 100,000.
In 1993, the Sentencing Project found that Russia was first in the world in prisoners, with 558 per 100,000 and the U.S. second with 519. Russian government statistics, while somewhat unreliable, haven’t changed since then, but the U.S. incarceration rate has continued to rise.