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Prison Population Growth Rate Slows, Number Reaches Record High


July 1997

By the end of 1996, the nation's prison population reached a new record of 1,182,169 federal and state prisoners, according to a recent report by the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics. In addition, the jail population as of June 30, 1996 was 518,492, and the total incarceration on June 30, 1996 was 1,630,940 (Christopher J. Mumola and Allen J. Beck, "Prisoners in 1996," Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin, June 1997; Reuter, "Record 1.18 Million People Are in U.S., State Prisons," Washington Post, June 23, 1997, p. A4).

Overall, the number of inmates increased 5%, the equivalent of an additional 1,075 inmates a week. This increase is less than the average annual growth rate of 7.3% recorded since 1990. The number of female inmates increased by 9.1%, nearly double the 4.7% increase among male prisoners. At the end of 1996, one in every 118 men, and one in every 1,818 women were in jail. One factor the report names as contributing to the growth of the prison population since 1985 is "a sharp rise in violent offenders among white inmates (accounting for 42% of the 10-year increased in white prisoners) and in drug offenders among black inmates (42% of their increase).

According to a June 1997 report by the Sentencing Project, the United States and Russia have the highest percentage of incarcerated individuals. "The U.S. rate is higher than at any previous time and is 6-10 times the rate of Western European nations." The rate of incarceration in the U.S. nearly doubled in the decade of 1985 to 1995. Drug offenders made up 36% of the increase in the state prison population, and 71% of the increase in the federal prison populations from 1985 to 1994. Crime rates for 1995 were as high as in 1985, and the rate of violent crime was 23% higher, according to the report (Marc Mauer, The Sentencing Project, "Americans Behind Bars: U.S. and International Use of Incarceration, 1995," June 1997).

The report may be obtained from BJS fax-on-demand at 301-519-5550. It is also on the web at

The Sentencing Project - 918 F. Street, NW, Suite 501, Washington, DC 20004, Tel: (202) 628-0871, Fax: (202) 628-1091.