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Nation's Inmate Population Reaches Record 1.7 Million


February 1998

The number of inmates in U.S. jails and prisons continued to rise in 1997, increasing nearly 6% to an estimated 1.7 million, according to a Justice Department study released on January 18 (Darrell K. Gilliard and Allen J. Beck, Ph.D., "Prison and Jail Inmates at Midyear 1997," Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin, January 1998, NCJ 167247; Press Release, "Nation's Prisons and Jails Hold More Than 1.7 Million," U.S. Department of Justice, January 18, 1998; Fox Butterfield, "`Defying Gravity,' Inmate Population Climbs," New York Times, p. A10; Associated Press, "Prison-Jail Population Continues to Increase," Washington Post, January 19, 1998, p. A12).

The total number of Americans incarcerated in jails and prisons reached 1,725,842 last June 30, an increase of about 96,100 over the prior year, according to the Justice Department. On that day there were 99,175 Federal prisoners, 1,059,588 state prisoners, and 567,079 jail inmates. At midyear 1997, the national incarceration rate was 645 per 100,000 persons, more than double the 1985 rate of 313 per 100,000. More than half of the growth in prisoners in 1997 was accounted for by just four states -- California, Texas, Missouri and Illinois -- and the federal prison system. Three states reported declines in their prison populations: Massachusetts (-0.7%), Virginia (-0.5%) and the District of Columbia (-0.2%).

Franklin Zimring, director of the Earl Warren Legal Institute at the University of California-Berkeley, said, "The astonishing thing with the rates of incarceration in the United States is that they've been going up for 20 straight years, defying gravity.''

The 1997 growth was led by a sharp increase in the number of people confined in city and county jails. The number of jail inmates increased 9.4%, almost double its average annual increase since 1990 of 4.9%. The number of state and federal prisoners rose 4.7%, less than its annual average since 1990 of 7.7%. The largest jail population was in Los Angeles County, with 21,962 inmates, followed by New York City, with 17,528. Jail numbers are a kind of leading indicator" of how many people will go to prison, said Zimring. "I hope I am wrong,'' he added, because "today's jail folk are tomorrow's prisoners.''

Women represent a growing percentage of those incarcerated in the U.S. In 1997, there were 73,302 women (6.3%) in prison and 59,884 women (10.6%) in jail, up from 5.6% and 9.2%, respectively in 1990.

Since the early 1970s, drug offenses have accounted for more than a third of the growth in the incarcerated population, and since 1980 the incarceration rate for drug arrests has increased 10-fold, according to Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University. Blumstein said, the incarceration rate for drug offenders currently is about 145 per 100,000, which is higher than the average incarceration rate for all offenses from the 1920s to the early 1970s: 110 per 100,000.

John DiIulio Jr., a professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University, said he has found that 25% of the new inmates entering prison in New York state are "drug-only'' offenders, with no record of other types of crimes. If that estimate proves true, he said, the criminal justice system is doing "a worse and worse job of diverting drug-only offenders'' into less expensive alternative programs, including drug treatment.

The large prison and jail population may be indicative of an even larger incarcerated population in the future. The proportion of criminals being sent to prison for the second or more time has increased steadily since 1980, said Allen Beck, chief of corrections statistics at the Bureau of Justice Statistics and coauthor of the new report. An increasing number of inmates who have been paroled are reincarcerated for parole violations such as failing a drug test.

Longer prison sentences, mandatory minimum sentencing laws and a greater reluctance by state officials to grant parole have also contributed to the increase in inmates.

The BJS report (#94) and the press release (#95) is available by fax on demand at (301) 519-5550 or you contact BJS at (800) 732-3277, Web: <>.