Americans are locked up by the million

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The Independent Online
The US fixation with law and order may not have much effect on the crime rate. But on one front it is breaking all records. For the first time, the prison population has passed the 1 million mark - a figure equal to the population of Birmingham - and it continues to rise by about 250 per day.

According to Justice Department figures yesterday, there were 919,000 people in state prisons and almost 94,000 in federal prisons at the end of June, meaning that the US has an incarceration rate five times that of Britain, 14 times greater than Japan, and a larger proportion of its inhabitants behind bars than any other country except Russia.

Nor do even these figures tell the whole story, as they exclude some 450,000 inmates of local prisons. One in every 193 adults is a prisoner, or 373 Americans out of every 100,000. That compares with just 103 per 100,000 when Ronald Reagan became the Republican president in 1980.

The figures mask large regional and above all racial disparities. Among big states, Texas leads the way, as it does over executions, with an incarceration rate of 545 per 100,000. But even that pales beside Washington's rate of 1,578.

Blacks, the statistics show, are seven times more likely to be behind bars than whites. In the District of Columbia, four out every 10 black males between 18 and 35 are either in prison, under arrest, on the run or on parole.

What is more, the upward trend is bound to continue. In demographic terms, children of the baby-boom generation are now at their most crime- prone age.

Prisons are bursting at the seams. The crime bill passed in August by Congress earmarks dollars 7.9bn (pounds 5bn) for new federal jails, while prison-building has become one of the biggest items in state budgets - dollars 3.1bn or 7.5 per cent of public spending in California.

Propelled by public opinion, judges are meting out stiffer sentences, especially for drug offences, and several states have adopted laws like 'three strikes and you're out', imposing automatic life imprisonment for a third serious crime. Crime is the biggest issue in the election campaign, with Democrats competing with Republicans to be tough.