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Black prison rate reach peak { April 7 2003 }

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April 7, 2003
Prison Rates Among Blacks Reach a Peak, Report Finds

An estimated 12 percent of African-American men ages 20 to 34 are in jail or prison, according to a report released yesterday by the Justice Department.

The proportion of young black men who are incarcerated has been rising in recent years, and this is the highest rate ever measured, said Allen J. Beck, the chief prison demographer for the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the statistical arm of the Justice Department.

By comparison, 1.6 percent of white men in the same age group are incarcerated.

The report found that the number of people in United States jails and prisons exceeded 2 million for the first time last year, rising to 2,019,234.

That represented an increase of 0.3 percent in the number of people behind bars, in keeping with a slowdown in the prison boom since the late 1990's, Mr. Beck said. But the number of inmates is still four times what it was before the enormous increase in the prison population began in the mid-1970's.

The small growth in the overall prison population last year included larger changes in some states, the report found.

California, which has the largest state prison system, with 160,315 inmates, had a 2.2 percent decrease in its number of prisoners in 2002.

Texas, which has the second-largest state prison system, with 158,131 inmates, had a drop of 3.9 percent, the report said.

New York, with the fourth-largest state prison system, had a decline of 2.9 percent.

In California, much of the decline stemmed from a ballot referendum two years ago that mandated treatment rather than prison time for nonviolent drug crimes.

The drop in Texas was the result of efforts by state prison officials to save money by finding alternatives to imprisoning parole violators, Mr. Beck said.

In New York the decline was the result of the drop in crime, he said.

The report found that last year, for the first time, the size of the federal prison system surpassed that of any state's, with 161,681 inmates.

Some of this growth in the federal prison system was accounted for by the Federal Bureau of Prisons' takeover of prisons operated by the government of the District of Columbia. But it also is part of the expansion of the federal prison system in recent years as Congress has increased the number of federal offenses, including many drug crimes and gun possession cases.

The report found that the overall prison population was relatively stable last year, but there was a 5.4 percent increase in the number of people confined in local and county jails, with the number rising to 665,475. This was the largest growth in the jail population in five years.

Generally, people sent to jail are awaiting trial or serving sentences of a year or less.

Mr. Beck said the growth in the number of jail inmates could be a result of the increase in crime last year, especially property crimes like burglary, with more suspects now awaiting trial.

Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University, said the report highlighted variations in the way states use prisons in their approach to reducing crime.

Louisiana, for instance, had an incarceration rate of 799 inmates per 100,000 of its population, the highest rate in the nation. But Maine, which had the lowest rate, incarcerated 137 inmates per 100,000 of its citizens.

Some of this disparity reflects a higher crime rate in Louisiana compared with Maine, Professor Blumstein said. "But the disparity goes way beyond that into differences in punitiveness," he said.

"People tend to think of us as one nation with one culture," Professor Blumstein said. "I don't think the disparities between states are widely appreciated."

Mr. Beck said that the 12 percent of black men in their 20's and early 30's in jail or prison was "a very dramatic number, very significant."

That is just the rate on a given day, Mr. Beck said. Over the course of a lifetime, the rates are much higher, he said. The Bureau of Justice Statistics has calculated that 28 percent of black men will be sent to jail or prison in their lifetime.

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