The flood of men and women into America’s jails and prisons continued last year, bringing their total to more than double the inmate count in 1985, the Justice Department said Sunday.
An estimated 7,888 children under age 18 were being held in local jails last year, a remarkable 17 percent increase over the year before, the agency said.
More than three-quarters of those juveniles had been tried or were awaiting trial as adults - a statistic reflecting the increasingly tough public attitude toward youth crime.
The world’s highest incarceration rate has seesawed in recent years between the United States and Russia, with both far outdistancing other nations.
Rapid growth in prison populations in recent years - reflecting a national wave of tough anti-drug laws - has strained state and federal budgets as corrections officials have raced to find bed space for 841,200 additional people since 1985, or more than 1,618 new beds every week. The total prison population has grown 113 percent since 1985.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons operated 26 percent over capacity in 1995, while state prison systems reported operating between 14 percent and 25 percent above capacity, the new Justice Department study shows.
The combined federal, state and local prison population grew 6.8 percent last year, slightly lower than the 8.4 percent average annual growth recorded since 1985.
At the end of 1995, there were 600 inmates per 100,000 U.S. residents, up from 313 in 1985. At the end of 1995, one in every 167 Americans was in prison or jail.
The fast pace of growth reflects a number of trends, including very tough mandatory sentencing for some drug crimes and new state and federal provisions designed to hammer repeat offenders.
Judges have less opportunity to be lenient because of laws that provide for specific prison terms rather than the maximum-to-minimum ranges formerly specified.
Prisoners generally are a youthful group because the vast majority of serious crimes are committed by young men. But because of longer sentences in recent years, the prison population is aging - with more middle-aged prisoners than before.
Politicians and experts on crime are divided over whether the large increase in the number of Americans behind bars has contributed to recent drops in rates of violent crime across the nation.
A number of cities, including New York, have reported significant drops in homicide rates in recent years.
But some criminologists say changes in drug use patterns and demographic trends may be more responsible for recent declines in violent crime. And others say the benefits seem small when compared with the large costs of incarceration.
Older prisoners and prisoners with serious drug-related health problems are adding to the woes of state and federal prison officials who must stretch budgets to pay the soaring costs of caring for mounting numbers of prisoners.
Some experts have described the continuing fast pace of prison growth as a time bomb with potentially devastating economic and social consequences.
More than 60 percent of men in state prisons have children, most of whom are under age 18. Nearly 80 percent of women prisoners are mothers. About 6 percent of them come to prison pregnant.
A third of the nation’s state prisoners are located in just three states - California, Texas and New York.
The prison boom has been biggest in states with the toughest sentences. Texas also had the highest per capita incarceration rate in the nation, 653 prisoners with sentences of more than a year per 100,000 residents.
Other states with high rates of incarceration include Louisiana, Oklahoma and South Carolina. States with the lowest prison incarceration rates are North Dakota, Minnesota and Maine.
In 14 states, the total prison population increased by 10 percent or more during 1995. North Carolina led the way with a whopping 24.2 percent increase, followed by Mississippi, Idaho, Wyoming and Nebraska.
Forty-three percent of the increase in prison population last year was accounted for by Texas (9,571), Florida (6,711), North Carolina (5,726), the federal system (5,216) and Pennsylvania (4,108).
Women account for just 6.1 percent of all state and federal inmates and 10.2 percent of those in local jails. There were 63,998 women being held in state or federal prisons at the end of 1995, with 52,452 in local jails at midyear.
About two-thirds of the nation’s 1.6 million prisoners are in state and federal prisons, where felons serving sentences of more than a year are normally held. The other third are in local jails.