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U.S. Prisons: How Crowded Are They?

Total Population Rising at Alarming Rates


Mandatory sentencing guidelines and a growing number of drug-related convictions are factors in a continued growth of inmates held in federal, state and local prisons and jails in the United States.

Although local jails are generally operating under their stated capacities, all state and federal prisons are overcrowded -- some as much as 33 percent higher than their official capacities.

The total population of prisons and jails in the United States neared the 2.1 million mark in June 2003, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), indicating the largest increase from year to year in four years.

The latest BJS report listed 2,078,570 men and women incarcerated on June 30, 2003, an increase of 57,600 more inmates than state, local and federal officials held on the same date a year earlier. States and the federal prisons held 1,380,776 prisoners while local municipal and county jails housed 691,301 inmates.

From July 1, 2002, to June 30, 2003, the number of state and federal prisoners grew by more than 2.9 percent, the largest increase in four years. The federal system increased by 5.4 percent, and state prisoners increased by 2.6 percent. During the same period, the local jail population increased by 3.9 percent.

According to the June 2003 BJS report:

Incarceration rates of state and federal prisoners continued to rise. At midyear 2003, the number of sentenced inmates was 480 per 100,000 U.S. residents, up from 476 per 100,000 on December 31, 2002. There were 238 jail inmates for every 100,000 U.S. residents on June 30, 2003. Overall, one out of every 140 U.S. residents was incarcerated in prison or jail.

100,102 Female Inmates

During the year the number of female state and federal inmates grew by 5.0 percent, compared to a 2.7 percent male inmate growth. By June 30, 2003, the female inmate population reached 100,102.

Ten states reported an increase of at least 5 percent in the 12-month period, led by the smaller state prison systems: Vermont (up 12 percent), Minnesota (up 9 percent) and Maine (up 9 percent). The largest state prison systems, Texas and California, rose by 4 percent and 2 percent, respectively. Nine states reported a decrease in population, led by Rhode Island (down 3 percent) and Arkansas (down 2 percent).

The number of inmates younger than 18 years old continues to decline. On June 30, 2003, there were 3,006 state prisoners under 18, and adult jails held 6,869 youths under 18 years old.

State and federal correctional authorities held 90,700 non-citizens at midyear 2003, 2.3 percent more than a year earlier. The federal system held 34,456 non citizens (38 percent of all noncitizen prisoners).

On June 30, 2003, the federal system had 170,461 prisoners, more than any state prison system. Since 1995, the federal system has grown an average of 8 percent per year, compared to an average annual growth of 2.9 percent for state inmates and 4 percent for jail inmates during the same period.

Minorities Make Up 60 Percent of Prison Population

An estimated 12 percent of all black males in their twenties were in jails or prisons last June 30, as were an estimated 3.7 percent of Hispanic males and 1.6 percent of white males in that age group. Sixty-eight percent of prison and jail inmates were members of racial or ethnic minority groups.

Jails — locally operated correctional facilities typically holding inmates sentenced to a year or less as well as people in various stages of the criminal justice system, such as awaiting trial -- added more inmates than new beds in the 12 months preceding June 30, 2003. Still local jails were operating at a national average of 6 percent below their official rated capacities. State prisons were between 1 and 17 percent above rated capacity, and federal prisons operated at 33 percent over capacity at the end of 2002.

The 50 largest jail systems housed a third of all jail inmates. Nineteen of these operated at or above their rated capacities.

White non-Hispanics made up 43.6 percent of the local jail population, blacks 39.2 percent, Hispanics 15.4 percent, and other races (Asians, American Indians, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders) 1.8 percent.

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