Analysis: U.S. incarceration continues to grow and racial disparities persist

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Although the growth of imprisonment was down in 2008, the number of incarcerated people is still on the rise, according to an analysis released today by the Justice Policy Institute (JPI). The analysis, which is based on the Department of Justice (DOJ) Bureau of Justice Statistics report released this week, found that 12,000 more people were incarcerated in 2008 than in the previous year, with more than 1.6 million people currently incarcerated in a federal or state prison in the United States. The number of people in prison continues to increase even as crime goes down, and in spite of evidence of its ineffectiveness as a public safety strategy. As states continue to grapple with budget crises, JPI says it is time for policymakers to step up their use of cost-effective alternatives to incarceration.

“In the midst of a fiscal meltdown, we simply cannot sustain or justify our infatuation with incarceration. Data shows that there is little if any relationship between the use of incarceration, crime rates, and what is known to be effective from both the perspectives of protecting public safety and the use of taxpayer dollars,” said Tracy Velázquez, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute. “While the deceleration of the growth in prisoners is encouraging, the ongoing expansion in the number of people incarcerated continues to be out of step with other criminal justice data and the availability of more effective alternatives. Reducing incarceration rates should be a top state and national priority, and it can be done while preserving public safety.”

According to the analysis, the number of people in prison increased 0.8 percent last year, making a total increase in the national prison population of 15.7 percent since 2000. In 2008, about one out of every 198 people in the U.S. was incarcerated in a federal or state prison.

Communities of color continue to be grossly over-represented in jails and prisons, as the multitude of systemic and social reasons for this disparity have not been adequately addressed. Although the DOJ report found that the number of African-Americans in prison fell by 18,400 since 2000, the number of incarcerated Hispanics has increased, and black men are still 6.5 times more likely, and Hispanic men 2.5 times more likely, to be in prison than white men.

“While the decrease in the number of incarcerated African Americans is notable, it is only a small reduction in the disproportionate imprisonment rates that impact communities of color,” added Velázquez. “These shameful racial disparities undermine the credibility of our system of justice in the United States and should be a matter of urgent concern for policymakers and legislators.”

According to JPI’s analysis, more people are being released without potentially supportive community release mechanisms, such as parole; this may be an indication that states are relying less on parole as a mode of release from prison for people who are eligible, and instead releasing people at the end of their full sentence. It likely also reflects the mounting impact of mandatory minimum sentences that were enacted over the past two decades. The growing number of people serving their entire sentence rather than being released on parole means many won’t have the benefits of case management and other supportive parole services.

JPI also noted that in both 2007 and 2008, the violent and property crime rates fell from the previous year. In 2008, the violent crime rate fell 2.8 percent. Yet, the number of people in prison continues to grow, even if it is at a slower pace. This year was the first year since 2001 that the imprisonment rate fell, albeit merely 0.4 percent (504 per 100,000 in 2008 v. 506 per 100,000 in 2007). Research shows that over the last 10 years, states that have increased their prison populations have not seen concurrent decreases in violent crime. At the same time, the states that have reduced their incarceration rates have seen some of the largest drops in violent crime.

“This is a time for the federal government, states and localities to be looking for ways to save money and cut expensive and ineffective programs and policies,” says Velázquez. “Reducing the number of people in prison can be an effective means of saving money and protecting community safety. And front-end investments such as education and employment opportunities have been shown to have positive long-term impact on communities.”

The Justice Policy Institute (JPI), a Washington, D.C.-based policy group that promotes fair and rational justice policies, cautions that no single factor can explain changes in crime across the nation, or within a jurisdiction. JPI has assembled key findings from these new crime and prison surveys to put the new figures in their appropriate context.

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