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September 27, 2007 - Washington Post (DC)

Influx Of U.S. Inmates Slowing, Census Says

Number Incarcerated Still a Record High; Sentencing in '90s Cited As Factor

By N. C. Aizenman, Washington Post Staff Writer

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

After two decades of massive growth, the U.S. prison population began to level off in the first six years of this century, according to 2006 census statistics released today.

At nearly 2.1 million, the number of adults in correctional institutions remains at an all-time high. Still, that figure represents a 4 percent rise since 2000 -- nowhere near the 77 percent spike in the prison population from 1990 to 2000.

The data, from the yearly American Community Survey, represent the Census Bureau's first in-depth look at people in prisons since the 1980 Census. Although the numbers vary, the census findings generally track with trends in twice-yearly statistics compiled by the Justice Department.

Many analysts point to crack cocaine in the 1980s as a catalyst for the subsequent boom in incarceration rates. Attracted by the drug's low price, dealers in impoverished urban neighborhoods began selling it in open-air markets, where they and their customers were targets for arrest. Thirst for the drug also fueled other crimes by addicts.

Perhaps the most significant factor, however, was the introduction of tough sentencing laws in the 1990s.

Congress dramatically increased prison time for offenses involving crack cocaine compared with those involving powdered cocaine. The federal government also introduced guidelines limiting judges' discretion at sentencing, as well as rules that drastically curtailed states' ability to parole offenders convicted of violent crimes. Many states also passed mandatory minimum-sentencing laws.

The result was an explosion in the prison population even as crime rates began to drop.

"The growth wasn't really about increasing crime but how we chose to respond to crime," said Allen J. Beck, deputy director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics. "When you increase the likelihood of a person going to prison for a conviction, and then you increase how long you keep them there, it has a profound effect."

Despite pending court challenges, most of those laws remain on the books. There are indications that the impact may be increasingly on women -- whose rate of violent crime has increased, and who often are arrested for low-level participation in drug conspiracies led by boyfriends or male relatives. In 1990, 8 percent of the prison population was female. By 2000, women were 9 percent of the population, and in 2006, 10 percent.

Still, the overall growth of the prison population has slowed substantially compared with the 1990s. Researchers point to a variety of reasons. First is the precipitous drop in crime rates since the late 1990s, possibly because of the declining popularity of crack cocaine, the introduction of innovative policing strategies and many would-be offenders already being behind bars.

Perhaps as important, many felons locked up in the 1990s are completing their sentences.

"All those people who were in prison are starting to come out. . . . So the number that is going in is approaching the number going out," said Christy Visher, primary research associate with the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center.

Indeed, said Visher, the prison population might even start to decline if it weren't for the high recidivism rate of those released: About half return to prison within three years.

And with a recent uptick in the crime rate, and increasing numbers of offenders being placed on probation, Beck said that the prison population may begin to significantly increase again.

Even if the prison population remains at its current level, the social and economic costs to the nation are enormous, Visher said.

She noted that the federal government and states are spending more than $65 billion per year on corrections alone. "We need to have a national conversation about how to transition this population into being productive," Visher said.

Just as worrisome is the persistent overrepresentation of blacks in prison. In 2006, blacks accounted for 12 percent of the general population but 40 percent of those in adult correctional institutions.

Hispanics are also overrepresented, but to a lesser extent. They made up 15 percent of the general population and 19 percent of the prison population.

By contrast, immigrants are underrepresented. Foreign-born inmates accounted for 9 percent of those incarcerated, compared with 13 percent of the total population.

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