- The Washington Times - Monday, August 13, 2001

The number of inmates in state prisons is down for the first time in nearly three decades, a new Justice Department report says.
That and other findings in the report, "Prisoners in 2000," could signal an end to the "tremendous growth" in the number of people behind bars since 1975 — no small occurrence, since in recent years prison overcrowding has reached crisis levels, an author of the report said yesterday.
"We expect to see some stability here [in prison populations] we may well see some real stability which would be a big difference from what we've seen in the past 20 to 25 years," Allen J. Beck, chief of corrections statistics for the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), said in a telephone interview.
He pointed to the "substantial" reduction in crime that began in the mid-1990s and to changes in some states' parole policies — which would make revocation of parole less likely — as factors in the stabilization of inmate numbers in the nation's state prisons.
The prison system is just now enjoying the benefits of the decreased crime. Mr. Beck explained that up until recently, those benefits were "offset" by the "impact of prison reform that occurred in the early 1990s," which imposed longer jail terms for serious offenders.
The Justice Department study, which Mr. Beck prepared along with BJS statistician Paige M. Harrison, found that the nation's state prison population fell by more than 6,200 inmates during the last six months of 2000.
That represented a decline of 0.5 percent from the same period in 1999, but it was the "first measured decline since 1972," the study said.
During all of last year, 13 states and the District of Columbia had substantial drops in their prison populations. The District had the largest decline — nearly 14 percent. It was followed by Massachusetts, down 5.6 percent; New Jersey, down 5.4 percent; New York, down 3.7 percent; and Texas, down 3.2 percent.
The study also showed that the combined inmate population in federal and state prisons nationwide edged up 1.3 percent last year, the smallest in 29 years. That compared with an average growth rate of 6 percent a year since 1990.
The overall rise of 18,191 prisoners in state and federal corrections facilities in 2000 contrasted with an increase of 43,796 in 1999 and a whopping 84,258 in 1994, said the Justice Department report.
Mr. Beck said a 1.3 percent annual growth in the prison population would be in line with the yearly increase in the overall U.S. population, which averages between one-half and 1 percent. "For 50 years, from 1925 to 1975, the incarceration rate in this country was stable. It remained at 100 to 110 prisoners per 100,000 population," he said.
But starting in 1975, the nation began witnessing sharp increases both in crime and incarceration rates. The annual proportion of prisoners to the general population "quadrupled" to 481 prisoners per 100,000 people, said Mr. Beck.
Today, the rate is 699 prisoners per 100,000 U.S. residents. But he noted that "growth in [prison] capacity outpaced the growth in prison population during the last decade." As a result, said Mr. Beck: "Today, prisons are 15 percent less crowded than they were in 1990."

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