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Record 1.7 Million Persons Incarcerated in America


September-October 1998

More than 1.7 million people, a record high, are currently behind bars in the U.S., according to the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). More than 1.24 million persons are incarcerated in state and federal prisons and 550,000 persons are being held in jails (Darrell K. Gilliard, "Prisoners in 1997," Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin, August 1998; Associated Press, "U.S. Prison Population Exceeded 1.2 Million in '97," Washington Post, August 3, 1998, p. A12; "U.S. prison population tops 1.2 million in 1997," Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk), August 3, 1998, p. A5).

The rate of incarceration is 645 for every 100,000 persons in the U.S. Last year's increase of 61,186 new inmates was a bit lower than the average increase of 63,900 since 1990. The United State's incarceration rate is 6 to 10 times greater than most industrialized countries' and is second only to Russia.

Allen J. Beck, a BJS statistician, said, "...the prison population growth in the 1990s has been primarily driven by the increasing lengths of stay [and] fewer inmates leaving." Inmate detention time has increased from an average of 20 months in 1990 to an average of 25 months. Beck said, "The increased time served, particularly for violent crimes, is a product of tougher parole boards and such measures as longer minimum sentences and truth-in-sentencing laws that require that more of each sentence be served behind bars." At the present rate of growth in incarceration the accepted expectation is that two million persons will be confined in U.S. prisons or jails by the year 2000 (Editorial, "Proliferating prisons," Virginian-Pilot, August 8, 1998, p. B6).

The Sentencing Project, a private group that advocates alternatives to imprisonment, said that the record incarceration numbers have occurred even though crime has been dropping since 1994. Between 1990 and 1996, adult arrests for murder and rape were both down by 19%, robbery arrests were down 17%, and burglary, larceny and auto theft arrests declined as well ("Prison population up despite drop in crime," Boston Herald, August 3, 1998, p. 25; Fox Butterfield, "Prison Population Growing Although Crime Rates Drop," New York Times, August 9, 1998)


Last year the number of persons on probation and parole hit a record high. The Justice Department announced that, at the end of 1997, 3.9 million Americans were currently under such supervision. The increase from the previous year was 2.9%, slightly shy of the 3.0% average annual increase since 1990. This means that at the end of 1997 almost 1 in every 35 adults in the United States was in prison, in jail, or on probation or parole. This amounts to 5.7 million adults or 2.9% of the population (Thomas P. Bonczar and Lauren E. Glaze, "Probation and Parole, 1997," Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin, August 1998, NCJ 172216; "Record number of people on parole, probation in '97," USA Today, August 17, 1998, p. 8A).

Bureau of Justice Statistics - Fax on Demand: (301) 519-5550, Clearinghouse - (800) 732-3277 , E-mail: <>, Web: <>.

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