American jail population hits two million

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The Independent US

America's propensity for putting people into jail has clocked up another bleak statistical marker. The Bush government reported yesterday that the total prison population reached two million for the first time last year.

America's propensity for putting people into jail has clocked up another bleak statistical marker. The Bush government reported yesterday that the total prison population reached two million for the first time last year.

Figures from the Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics reveal that the number of people in state and federal prisons rose by 2 per cent in the 12 months to 30 June 2002 to stand at 2,015,475. The bulk of the increase was accounted for by federal and local prisons, which jumped 3 per cent and 5 per cent respectively.

In some states, including the "Big Two" prison states of Texas and California, prison populations actually fell, as thousands of prisoners, especially drug offenders, were released early under more generous parole regulations, to reduce overcrowding. As their budget deficits have soared with recession, other states have decided to release some prisoners not considered dangerous, to reduce public spending.

But the figures offer little comfort. In particular, they paint a stark picture of how black people are far more likely to be jailed than white people, an intensifying trend. The latest report shows 12 per cent of black men aged 20 to 34 are in prison, compared with 1.6 per cent of the white male population in that age bracket. An estimated 4.8 per cent of all black males are in jail, compared with 1.7 per cent of Hispanics and 0.6 per cent of whites.

The figures will fuel charges that the US criminal justice system is biased against African Americans.

The United States' incarceration rate, 702 people per 100,000 of population, is the highest among industrialised countries. But that masks striking regional disparities. The south continues to jail proportionately more people than other areas. Louisiana, for instance, had 799 prisoners per 100,000, while Maine on the north-eastern seaboard, jails just 137 per 100,000.

The annual rate of increase in America's prison population has actually slowed over the past decade, and the 2002 growth was just 0.3 per cent. Even so, the total is four times that of the 1970s, when get-tough policies on crime were enacted in earnest.

The passing of the two million mark drew differing responses from civil rights and law enforcement groups.

Malcolm Young, the director of the Sentencing Group in Washington, which advocates alternative punishments to prison, said that the two-million milestone was "the legacy of an infrastructure of punishment which has been embedded in the criminal justice system over the past 30 years".

But supporters of tough sentencing say harsher terms are precisely the reason why crime rates are falling. According to the FBI, violent crimes such as assault, rape and murder fell by 33 per cent in the decade to 2001, while burglaries and other property crimes dropped by more than 25 per cent.

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