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Highest adult imprisonment world { August 18 2003 }

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U.S. has highest adult imprisonment rate in the world
August 18, 2003

WASHINGTON--About one in every 37 U.S. adults either was imprisoned at the end of 2001 or had been at one time, the government reported Sunday.

The 5.6 million people with ''prison experience'' represented 2.7 percent of the adult population, the highest incarceration level in the world.

The study by the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics looks at people who served a sentence for a crime in state or federal prison, not those temporarily held in jails.

The study is the first to measure not only how many adults are behind bars, but how many had ever been imprisoned at any time.

Between 1974 and 2001, the number of current and former inmates rose by 3.8 million, the study found.

Experts say the growing numbers of ex-prisoners mean that more people in society have difficulty finding jobs because they have felony convictions. Many cannot vote, and they are more likely to have family or emotional problems that exact a toll on state and local government budgets.

''We're talking about a large number of people--bigger than a lot of countries in Western Europe--who face the barriers that exist when you have been in the correctional system,'' said Jason Zeidenberg, director of policy and research at the Justice Policy Institute, which advocates alternatives to prison.

''That's a really upsetting number.''

The number of people sent to prison for the first time tripled from 1974 to 2001 as sentences got tougher, especially for drug offenses. There are more ex-prisoners, as well, the result of longer life expectancies and a larger U.S. population.

Prison experiences vary greatly by sex and ethnic origin.

''At every age, men have higher chances of going to prison than women, and blacks and Hispanics have higher chances than whites,'' statistician Thomas P. Bonczar said in the report.

Almost 5 percent of men had done prison time, compared with less than 1 percent of women.

Almost 17 percent of black men had prison experience, compared with 7.7 percent of Hispanic men and 2.6 percent of white men.

No matter their ethnic origin, people between ages of 35 and 44 had the highest rates of lifetime incarceration--6.5 percent for men, almost 1 percent for women.

If incarceration rates remain the same, about 6.6 percent of people born in 2001 can expect to serve a prison sentence during their lifetimes, the study said.

That compares with 5.2 percent of those born in 1991 and 1.9 percent of people born in 1974, according to the estimates.

The new report informs--but does not settle--one of the toughest debates in American politics: whether high rates of imprisonment are related to a drop in crime rates over the last decade.

The war on drugs and mandatory minimum sentencing have sent many to prison. New drug policies have especially affected incarceration rates for women, which have increased at nearly double the rate for men.

''A lot of people think that the reason crime rates have been dropping over the past several years is, in part, because we're incarcerating the people most likely to commit crimes,'' says Stephan Thernstrom, a historian at Harvard University.

Others say the drop has more to do with factors such as a generally healthy economy in the 1990s, more opportunity for urban youth or better community policing.

AP, with Christian Science Monitor contributing

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