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March 31, 2009

New Prison and Jail Figures Show Record Incarceration, Bureau of Justice Statistics Reports

The U.S. prison and jail population has reached a record high exceeding 2.3 million people, according to a new report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. An analysis of the new data by The Sentencing Project finds broad variation in incarceration trends throughout the nation. While the overall state prison population rose by 12.8% from 2000-2008, individual state trends range from an increase of 59.7% in Minnesota to a decline of 12% in New York during this period.

Overall, the analysis finds that 9 states registered more than 30% growth in their prison systems from 2000-2008:

  • Minnesota - 59.7%
  • West Virginia - 59.6%
  • Florida - 40.9%
  • Kentucky 39.6%
  • Indiana - 38%
  • Colorado - 37.4%
  • Oregon - 33%
  • Idaho - 32.6%
  • Virginia - 32.3 %

Only two states - New York and New Jersey - registered declines during the eight-year period, 12% and 11.1% respectively.

Over the past year a number of states have adopted policies designed to reduce their prison populations. These include enhanced good time credits in prison in Kentucky and Pennsylvania, reducing the number of returning technical parole violators in Kansas and New Jersey, and enhanced parole reentry in Michigan. These policy changes may contribute to the declining rate of growth in state prisons and local jails noted in the BJS report.

"The rapid rise in prison populations over the past two decades has now collided with the fiscal crisis," stated Marc Mauer, Executive Director of The Sentencing Project. "As a result, there is now strong bipartisan support for reconsidering overly harsh sentencing policies that have filled prison cells."

The Sentencing Project analysis also notes that the federal prison population passed the 200,000 mark for the first time, and has risen at more than three times the rate of the state figures. The number of people in federal prisons increased by 44.3% from 2000-2008, compared to the 12.8% rise in state prison populations. More than half the federal prison population is comprised of drug offenders, compared to about 20% in state prisons.

At the national level, Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) last week described American incarceration policy as"a national disgrace" in introducing the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009. The bipartisan legislation would create a blue-ribbon commission to develop recommendations for how to reform "every aspect of our criminal justice system."

Issue Area(s): Incarceration