March 14, 1999
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The number of American adults behind bars has grown steadily in the past several years, and now the United States is creeping toward Russia's No. 1 spot as the country with the highest rate of incarceration.
The number of U.S. prisoners reached its highest level ever last year, the Justice Department said Sunday.
At mid-1998, jails and prisons held an estimated 1.8 million people, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report. Just 12 years ago, at the end of 1985, the total was less than half that number -- 744,208.
There were 668 inmates for every 100,000 U.S. residents in June last year, compared with 313 inmates per 100,000 people in 1985.
In Russia, 685 people out of every 100,000 are behind bars, according to The Sentencing Project, a U.S. group critical of the trend toward harsher sentencing of American criminals.
A planned amnesty of 100,000 prisoners in Russia and continued increases in the U.S. inmate population mean the United States probably will become the world's leading jailer "in a year or two," said Jenni Gainsborough, a Sentencing Project spokeswoman.
The national jail population was 41 percent white, 41 percent African-American, 16 percent Hispanic and 2 percent other ethnicities, including Asians and American Indians.
The number of people behind bars grew by 4.4 percent from June 1997 to June 1998.
Men were 89 percent of the inmates.
The largest jail populations were in Los Angeles, with more than 21,000 inmates; New York City, with nearly 17,700 inmates; and Chicago, with more than 9,300 inmates.
About two-thirds of the nation's prisoners, or 1.2 million people, are in state and federal prisons; the remaining one-third, or 600,000 people, are in local jails. Prisons generally hold convicted criminals sentenced to terms longer than one year, while jails typically keep those awaiting trial and those sentenced to 12 months or less.
The nation's jails added more than 26,000 beds over the past year and were filled to 97 percent of capacity by June 1998.
Authorities supervised more than 72,000 men and women in the community by electronic monitoring, home detention or work release.
The number of people imprisoned in the United States has grown for more than a quarter-century, topping 1 million in 1990. Experts have attributed the increases primarily to more drug prosecutions and tougher sentencing laws.
Between the end of 1990 and mid-1998, the incarcerated population grew an average 6.2 percent annually, said statistician Darrell Gilliard, author of the Justice Department report.
Although the growth rate was slower last year, Gilliard said the difference is not statistically significant.
"The numbers have been pretty steady throughout the 1990s, with a pretty steady increase every year," he said.
Gilliard's report showed the number of inmates in state prisons grew 4.1 percent last year; the number in federal prisons grew 8.3 percent; and the number in local jails grew 4.5 percent.
The figures closely track numbers released last summer that showed 5.2 percent growth in federal and state prisons by the end of 1997.
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