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Prison population swells in '04

Numbers rising despite decrease in US crime rate

WASHINGTON -- Growing at a rate of about 900 inmates each week between mid-2003 and mid-2004, the nation's prisons and jails held 2.1 million people, or one in every 138 US residents, the government reported yesterday.

By June 30, 2004, there were 48,000, or 2.3 percent, more inmates than the year before, according to the latest figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The nation's total inmate population has hovered at 2 million for the past few years, reaching 2.1 million on June 30, 2002, and just below that mark a year later.

The crime rate has fallen over the past decade, but the number of people in prison and jail is outpacing the number of inmates released, said the report's coauthor, Paige Harrison. For example, the number of admissions to federal prisons in 2004 exceeded releases by more than 8,000, the study found.

Harrison said the increase can be attributed largely to get-tough policies adopted in the 1980s and 1990s. Among them are mandatory drug sentences, ''three strikes and you're out" laws for repeat offenders, and ''truth-in-sentencing" laws that restrict early releases.

''As a whole most of these policies remain in place," she said. ''These policies were a reaction to the rise in crime in the '80s and early '90s."

Added Malcolm Young, executive director of the Sentencing Project, which promotes alternatives to prison: ''We're working under the burden of laws and practices that have developed over 30 years that have focused on punishment and prison as our primary response to crime."

He said many of those incarcerated are not serious or violent offenders, but are low-level drug offenders. Young said one way to help lower the number is to introduce drug treatment programs that offer effective ways of changing behavior and to provide appropriate assistance for the mentally ill.

The prison population in Massachusetts dropped from 10,511 to 10,365 inmates from mid-2003 to mid-2004, a decline of 1.4 percent.

According to the Justice Policy Institute, which advocates a more lenient system of punishment, the United States has a higher rate of incarceration than any other country. There were 726 inmates for every 100,000 US residents by June 30, 2004, according to the report by the Justice Department agency.

In 2004, 61 percent of prison and jail inmates were racial or ethnic minorities, the government said. An estimated 12.6 percent of all black men in their late 20s were in jails or prisons, as were 3.6 percent of Hispanic men and 1.7 percent of white men in that age group, the report said.

Other findings include:

State prisons held about 2,500 youths under 18 in 2004. That compares with a peak, in 1995, of about 5,300. Local jails held about 7,000 youths, down from 7,800 in 1995.

In the year ending June 30, 2004, 13 states reported an increase of at least 5 percent in the federal system, led by Minnesota, at about 13 percent; Montana at 10.5 percent; Arkansas at 9 percent.

In addition to Massachusetts, there were 12 states reporting a decline in the inmate population. They included: Alabama, 7 percent; Connecticut, 2.5 percent; and Ohio, 2 percent.

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