Report Shows More Americans in Prison Than Ever Before

The Justice Department reports that the percentage of Americans behind bars is now greater than ever before in the nation's history. The annual report — based on a 2005 prison census — provides a snapshot of who's in prison and why. Debbie Elliott talks with NPR's Laura Sullivan about the findings.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

The Justice Department reported today that the percentage of Americans behind bars is now greater than ever before in the nation's history. The annual report, based on a 2005 prison census, provides a snapshot of who's in prison and why. I spoke with NPR's Laura Sullivan about the findings.

LAURA SULLIVAN reporting:

Well, the report found that across the country there are more than 2.1 million people in the nation's prisons and jails. And if you break that down, that means that there is one person for every 136 Americans behind bars.

ELLIOTT: How much of an increase is that?

SULLIVAN: Well, this is part of a growing trend that we've seen since the mid 1990s. There has been an explosion in the prison populations in the mid 1990s and then in 2000 there was a small hint of a slowdown and a lot of experts speculated that we would see the number start to decline, but that just hasn't happened, and in fact the numbers have gone up and up and its been picking up speed again and increasing at faster rates.

ELLIOTT: Are there explanations as for why there is an increase?

SULLIVAN: There are a lot of theories. The '80s and '90s were filled with get tough on crime initiatives. There were harsher punishments and the public's tolerance for rehabilative programs really declined during that period. They wanted to see more prison time and it was a reflection of a lot of drug wars and drug crime that was going on at the time.

A lot of experts believe that what we're seeing now is the long-term impact of things like truth in sentencing and the abolition in many states of parole. The federal government no longer has parole, and it's much harder to get out of prison now because of those initiatives ,and there are more people coming in and fewer people leaving.

ELLIOTT: Now, these numbers broke things down by state. Were you able to see if the states shared similar trends?

SULLIVAN: The states were very different, and what's interesting about this year's report is what we see in states with more rural populations. States that are more in the middle of the country, Montana, South Dakota, Minnesota and Kentucky, all states that are coincidently battling the rise in methamphetamine use. And a lot of experts say that that is why the prison populations in those states have gone up so dramatically. But there are also some states that actually saw a decline in their prison populations. Vermont, Idaho and New York are among them, and there are some states that simply incarcerate more of their residents at higher rates. Those states are usually in the South, and they were again this year. Louisiana leads the country, followed by Georgia, Texas, Mississippi and Oklahoma.

These states have more residents per capita in prison and in their jails than any of state. Louisiana and Georgia actually locked up more than one percent of their state residents.

ELLIOTT: What other trends did you spot in this report?

SULLIVAN: Race again played a major role in the statistics. Black men in their 20s have the highest incarceration rates, but the number of women behind bars has also increased again. In fact the number of women has been increasing at a faster rate than the number of men. It's still not very big. Women account for about seven percent of the national prison population, but it's getting bigger and it's much bigger than it used to be. The report also found that the number of prisoners in federal facilities is going way up. And the federal facilities are already almost at capacity, so this is going to be a problem for them in the years that come.

ELLIOTT: Looking at this report, it showed an interesting figure about juveniles in prisons. We tend to hear reports of juvenile crime and think that those numbers are going up, but this reflects there are actually fewer people under 18 locked up.

SULLIVAN: Well, juvenile crime has dropped steadily much like all crime overall for the past ten years. A lot of the public doesn't believe this, but it is in fact the case. The number of juveniles in state prisons has dropped steadily with that since 1995 and it happened again this year. But it's not so much that there are fewer juveniles behind bars. There are still a very high number of juveniles behind bars. They are just in juvenile facilities. They are not in adult prisons, and so what this report seems to reflect is a growing reluctance of the justice system in recent years to sentence teens to adult prison or with adult sentences.

ELLIOTT: NPR's Laura Sullivan. Thank you very much.

SULLIVAN: Thank you.

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