AP National, June 30, 2001

by KAREN GULLO
Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) –– The number of Americans in state prisons last year increased at the slowest rate since 1971, though the total number of people incarcerated in the United States remained at a record high in 2000, the Justice Department reported Sunday.

As of June 2000, 1,931,859 people were in federal, state and local facilities, a 3 percent increase over June 1999. The increase was primarily in the number of people in federal prisons, researchers said.

The majority of people behind bars in the United States are in state prisons, and this population grew by just 1.5 percent, the smallest annual growth rate in 29 years, according to a report by the department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Racial disparities in prison populations were profound, the report showed:

––Black males were incarcerated in record numbers –– a total of 791,600 black men were in prison, a new high. Nearly one in eight black males age 20 to 34 were in prison on any given day, the report said.

––Racial minorities account for 79 percent of all state prison drug offenders.

The total number of prisoners in state correctional facilities was 1,242,962 as of June 2000. Eleven states reported a decline in their inmate populations from 1999 to 2000, including two of the nation’s largest state prison systems –– California and New York.

Allen J. Beck, a co–author of the bureau report, said that state prison populations fell because crime is down across the country.

Crime has been falling for several years but, until last year, that did not have the effect of slowing the rate of growth in the prison population because stricter sentencing rules were keeping inmates in jail longer.

“The drop in crime is finally starting to show up in a smaller growth rate in the number of prisoners,” Beck said.

Prisoner advocates say the trend is encouraging but contend that far too many people are incarcerated in the United States compared with other countries.

“We have 25 percent of the world’s prisoners but we’re only 5 percent of the world’s population,” said Kara Gotsch of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, which advocates alternatives to incarceration.

Gotsch said the slower growth rate at state prisons could also represent a trend toward dealing with offenders outside the prison system.

“Many states are now realizing that it makes not only good criminal justice sense but also good financial sense to find alternatives,” such as sending drug offenders into treatment programs, said Gotsch. “It’s too expensive to jail everyone.”

On the Net:

Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics: http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/ (Prison and Jail Inmates at Midyear 2000)