DRCNet Activist Guide 10/96

The Body Counts

The United States continues to imprison its own citizens at rates never seen before in the history of the world, except during holocausts. As of 1995, almost 1.6 million men and women filled the nation's prisons and jails, an increase of 66,843 in state prisons and 5,216 in federal prisons since 1994, according to Prison and Jail Inmates, 1995, a Bureau of Justice Statistics report released last August 18. Since 1985, the total number of inmates in state and federal prisons and local jails has increased by 113 percent. At the end of 1995, there were 600 inmates per 100,000 United States residents, up from 313 inmates per 100,000 in 1985. On December 31, 1995, one in every 167 U.S. residents was incarcerated.

Women accounted for 6.1 percent all state and federal inmates and 10.2 percent of those in local jails. There were 63,998 women held in state or federal prisons at the end of 1995, and 52,452 in local jails at midyear. (Where are their children?) An estimated 7,888 youths under 18 years old were being held in local jails last year -- a 17 percent increase over the year before. More than three-quarters of these juveniles had been tried or were awaiting trial as adults.

The increasing inmate population has required federal, state and local corrections officials to find bed space for 841,200 additional people since 1985, or more than 1,618 new beds every week. In 1995 state prison systems reported operating between 14% and 25% above capacity. The Federal Bureau of Prisons reported operating 26% over capacity. Local jails reported operating at 7% below their rated capacity. As a consequence of adding bed space for more than 41,000 additional inmates in the year ending June 30, 1995, which was an 8% increase, local jails recorded the lowest occupancy rates in 10 years.

The total state and federal prison population has increased from just over 200,000 in 1973 to 1.1 million today, according to Truths, Half-Truths, and Lies: Myths and Realities About Crime and Punishment, a Sentencing Project report released on Oct. 10. During these 25 years, overall and violent crime have risen and fallen several times, with overall crime increasing about 25% per capita and violent crime increasing almost 70%. While homicide rates have declined by 3% in Boston since 1970 and 13% in San Francisco, they have increased by 71% in Los Angeles, 85% in Phoenix, 213% in Milwaukee, and 329% in New Orleans.

In 1991, the most recent year for which such data are available,53% of state prison inmates were incarcerated for a non-violent property or drug offenses, up from 45% in 1986. 59% of inmates in federal prisons today are incarcerated for drug offenses alone. (The federal prisons hold about 10% of the nation's total prison population.) Over half a million people are in federal or state prisons for non-violent property or drug offenses.

The number of African Americans in state prisons for drug offenses more than quintupled between 1986 to 1991, rising from 14,000 to 80,000. We don't know how many African Americans are incarcerated today for drug offenses, but we do know that in 1990, 1 in 4 young black men between the ages of 20 and 29 were under some form of criminal justice control on any given day, while in 1995 the proportion had risen to 1 in 3, with the bulk of the increase being due to drug policies. These numbers suggest that the total number of African Americans incarcerated for drug offenses is probably well in excess of 100,000.

More than twice as many people have been sentenced under California's "three strikes, you're out" law for marijuana possession than have murderers, rapists and kidnappers combined, according to a study released last March by the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice. The study found that 192 people had received lengthy sentences (25 years or more) for marijuana possession during the two years since the state law was passed. 280 people had been sentenced under three strikes for all drug offenses. The next most frequent charge was burglary, with 243 third-strike convictions. About 85 percent of the 1,300 third-strike convictions were for nonviolent offenses. African Americans were charged under three strikes at 17 times the rate of whites. Another CJCJ report released in February found that almost 40% of African American men in their 20's in California were in prison, on probation or on parole on any given day.

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DRCNet Activist Guide 10/96

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