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June 4, 2004 - The Drug War Chronicle (US Web)

Jail and Prison Population at an All-Time High

Three Decades of Unbroken Increases

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

For the thirty-first straight year, the number of people America throws behind bars has increased, leaving the nation with an all-time high of nearly 2.1 million people incarcerated at the end of June 2003, according to an annual report released last week by the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics. Despite sentencing reforms and other measures to trim prison budgets in the states in recent years, the number of people behind bars increased by 57,600, a 2.9% rate of increase, the largest in four years.

Growth was fastest in the federal prison system, which swelled by 5.4% to more than 170,000 prisoners, well over half of them drug offenders, compared to a much lesser 2.6% rate of increase in state prison populations. The drug war drives the increase in the federal system, with drug offenders accounting for nearly half (48%) of the increase.

The report did not look at the number of drug offenders imprisoned, but another Bureau of Justice Statistics report found more than 246,000 people doing time in state prisons at the end of 2002, as well as more than 78,000 doing federal time for drug crime. That report did not specify the number of drug offenders in city or county jails, but in past years that figure has been in the tens of thousands. According to that report, drug offenders accounted for 15% of the overall growth in prison populations.

Not only is the absolute number of prisoners continuing to rise, the bureau found, but incarceration rates continue to increase as well. At midyear 2003, 718 out of every 100,000 Americans were behind bars, up from 701 the previous year. With recent amnesties for prisoners in Russia, America's reign as the imprisonment champion of the world is once again un-endangered. (Russia's rate is 584 per 100,000, and by way of comparison with other industrialized Western nations, England's is 143, Canada's is 116, Germany's is 96 and Japan's is 54.)

"Early warnings in the late 1980's, though muted within the drug hysteria, were predictors of the national statistics we see today," said Nora Callahan, cofounder and executive director of the November Coalition (, a group working to end the drug war and free drug war prisoners. She paid close attention early on, because she had a brother facing a federal drug indictment in 1989. "The federal government built an entire prison industrial complex in two decades. Today, state and federal prisoners serve the global war effort, making uniforms, tank cables, helmets, furniture, tents, et cetera," she told DRCNet. "This report damns the notion that leaders in power are progressive thinkers, now doesn't it? But we the people all have to pay for the excess of the drug war and a criminal justice policy gone awry. That's the saddest part."

In an extensive analysis of the Bureau of Justice Statistics report's implications, The Sentencing Project ( attempted to address the obvious question: Why, given the declining crime rate and the moves toward a less punitive, less expensive approach to crime in recent years, do the numbers continue to increase? The Sentencing Project pointed squarely at two factors: more new prisoners (up 7.4% over the previous year) and prisoners serving longer sentences. Prisoners sentenced in 2000 are serving sentences 11% longer than those sentenced just two years earlier, the group noted. Drug offenders were doing 21% more time.

The Sentencing Project duly noted the enactment of sentencing reforms in various states, but pointed out that "the continuing rise in imprisonment suggests that they have not been sufficient in themselves to stem that increase." In California, for example, the projected declines in prison population after the enactment of Proposition 36, the "treatment not jail" initiative passed by voters in 2000, was more than offset by an 8% increase in new admissions in 2002-2003.

Similarly, while Texas adopted sentencing and parole revocation reforms in recent years, it still accounted for a whopping 16% of all new prisoners for the period ending midyear 2003. And sentencing reforms that did take place were counterbalanced by the long-term effects of "tough on crime" sentencing policies adopted by the states and the federal government in the 1980s and 1990s, the group said, pointing to "three strikes" and "truth in sentencing" laws in effect in 30 states and the federal system.

Veteran observer Eric Sterling, head of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation ( suggested another force at work as well. "As local governments stagger under the burden of the Bush recession with losses of state and local revenue, the police seek to inoculate themselves from the virus of budget-cutting by stepping up the number of arrests," said Sterling. "Individual officers who may fear being laid off see it in their interests to step up the number of collars. Chiefs of police can go to city councils and say 'see how important our work is, we have increasing arrests.' Prosecutors demonstrate their competence by getting longer sentences," he continued.

"And it goes all the way to the top. Attorney General Ashcroft last summer issued directives to the US attorneys telling them to charge the most serious charges they can, get the longest sentences they can, and to refuse plea bargains," Sterling continued. "He also ordered US attorneys to report to him federal judges who imposed sentences lower than what the Justice Department wanted. State and local prosecutors pay close attention to what the attorney general does."

State legislators and the criminal justice establishment inhabit different worlds, Sterling said. "You have a disconnect between state legislators and governors who need to balance state budgets that are struggling to accommodate enormous expenditure of imprisonment and locally elected prosecutors and judges and chiefs of police who answer to local mayors and city councils who drive the statewide prisons population numbers," he said. "They don't have to pay the bill, so you see legislators advancing sentencing reform concepts that are undermined by locally driven political ambitions."

Visit to read the Bureau of Justice Statistics report, "Prison and Jail Inmates at Midyear 2003."

Visit to read the Bureau of Justice Statistics report, "Prisoners in 2002," released in August 2003.

Visit to read the Sentencing Project's analysis (PDF Format)

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