The number of Americans under the control of the criminal justice system reached 5 million last year, including a record 1.5 million inmates in federal and state prisons and local jails and another 3.5 million convicted criminals on probation and parole, the Justice Department said on Wednesday in the most comprehensive report ever done on the scope of law enforcement network.
If the current trend continues - as law enforcement experts and criminologists interviewed on Wednesday predicted it would - the number of Americans behind bars or on probation or parole will soon approach the 6 million students enrolled full-time in four-year colleges and universities nationwide. Within a decade the number of people behind bars will exceed the entire New York City population, currently about 7.3 million.
During 1994, the number of inmates in federal, state and local prisons increased by more than 1,600 a week, and the number of people incarcerated at year's end had tripled since 1980, according to the study, by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, a research arm of the Justice Department.
There are wide divergences among experts on how fast the prison population will grow, with estimates depending both on the crime rate and changes in legislation. This year, for instance, the Republicans' Contract With America calls for providing possible billions of dollars in federal financing for state prison construction if states lengthen the required amount of time inmates serve to at least 85 percent of their sentences, a provision that Florida recently met.
Criminologists and politicians on Wednesday offered conflicting opinions about whether the large increase in the number of Americans behind bars had had any effect on the crime rate. The FBI reported in May that the rate of violent and serious crimes had dropped 3 percent in 1994, the third consecutive year of decline. Some cities, including New York, have reported a significant decrease in homicide.
Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Fla., who is chairman of the House subcommittee on crime, called today's report was "encouraging" and said it showed that Congress' efforts to stop crime by lengthening prison sentences and building more prisons were beginning to work.
"If you can get these violent criminals to serve more time, you will inevitably reduce the violent crime rate," McCollum said. "Anyone who is locked up will not commit a crime."
Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University, acknowledged that the increase in imprisonment clearly removed some criminals from the streets and meant that fewer murders would be committed. But he said that since 1985 there had been only a 10 percent reduction in the homicide rate among adults over the age of 24, a disproportionately small gain when measured against the vast increase in the number of prisoners.
"We should think very hard about the trade-off" between the tripling in the prison population and the relatively small decrease in crime, Blumstein said.
Wednesday's report found that there were 95,034 people in federal prisons at the end of 1994, with 958,704 in state prisons. The total represented an overall increase of 9 percent compared with 1993, which was the second largest yearly increase on record.
Allen J. Beck, an author of the report, said there were another 483,717 people locked up in city and county jails at the end of 1994. Most inmates in local jails at any given time are awaiting trial or have been sentenced to terms of a year or less.
There were widespread variations by region in rates of incarceration, the report found. Southern states had the highest per capita rate of incarceration, 451 per 100,000 residents, while the Northeast had the lowest rate, 285 per 100,000 residents. During 1994, Texas led the nation in the growth of its state prison population with an increase of 28 percent, followed by Georgia with a 20 percent increase.
The report offered conflicting evidence about whether many of those being arrested are simply drug users instead of serious, violent criminals, as some critics of America's crime policy have charged. The study showed that between 1980 and 1993, the number of people imprisoned for violent offenses grew by 221,200 nationwide, while those convicted on drug charges increased by 167,000.
But at the same time the report found that from 1980 to 1993 the percentage of drug offenders in state prisons rose to 26 percent from 8 percent, while the proportion of drug offenders in federal prisons soared to 60 percent from 25 percent.
John J. DiIulio Jr., professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University, said that the report had overlooked an important development: that violent criminals are gradually being made to serve a greater proportion of their sentences. In 1988, he said, violent offenders served only 43 percent of their sentences, compared with 51 percent today. "This is good news and will account for tens of millions of serious crimes averted," DiIulio said.
But Jerome G. Miller, the director of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, said that Wednesday's report was discouraging because it showed that "the percentage of Americans going in and out of jails is phenomenal" and that "as you go down the socio-economic scale the percentage gets much higher." America, Miller asserted, is relying too heavily on imprisonment as a way to stop crime, and the criminal justice system is turning the majority of impoverished minorities in the inner cities into criminals.
Almost three quarters of the new admissions to prisons are now black or Hispanic, Miller said, and if present trends continue, he asserted, by 2010, "we will have the absolute majority of all African-American males between age 18 and 40 in prisons and camps."