Prison Populations Hit All-Time Highs : U.S., States Report Rise of 5.6% in ‘85; Stiffer Sentencing Cited

Times Staff Writer

Prison populations reached new highs during the last year in California and the nation, possibly as a result of stiffened sentencing procedures, the Justice Department reported Sunday.

A survey by the department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics found that state and federal prison populations rose in the first half of 1985 by 26,183, or 5.6%, to a record 490,041. The half-year increase nearly equaled the 26,610 rise in the number of inmates recorded for the entire year of 1984.

In California, where 10.4% of Americans live and 9.5% of all American prisoners are incarcerated, the prison population stood at 47,075 on June 30, the bureau said. The figure, up 3,761 from 1984, marked a 12.4% one-year increase and an 8.7% rise since Jan. 1.

Ranking behind California in numbers of prisoners were Texas, with 38,028, New York, with 34,597, and Florida, with 28,309.

Steven R. Schlesinger, director of the statistical bureau, said that possible explanations for the sharp increase included “reduction in inmates released early from prison, greater use of mandatory sentencing laws and tougher sentencing practices by judges.”


Schlesinger noted that the number of inmates increased when prisons in many areas of the country were already overcrowded. At the same time, he added, “incarcerated offenders are at least temporarily unable to victimize the public.”

The number of inmates in federal prisons stood at 37,669 on June 30, up 10.2% for the year and 9.9% since Jan. 1, the study said. The rate of increase was substantially higher than that of state institutions, which rose 5.3% in the half-year and 7.7% in the full year, the report said.

Regionally, the largest prison population was recorded in 16 Southern and border states, which, together with the District of Columbia, reported 202,127 individuals behind bars on June 30. The average rate of increase for the region was 6.6% for the year and 4.6% for the half-year, but the rate for the District of Columbia was more than three times higher: 24.7% for the year and 12.6% for the half-year.

The wholly urban District’s record incarceration rate, 743 sentenced prisoners for every 100,000 population, was more than three times the national average of 197.

In 13 Western states, the June 30 prison population totaled 84,890, up 10.3%, with incarceration rates varying from 90 per 100,000 in Utah to 397 per 100,000 in Nevada. California recorded 174 incarcerations per 100,000.

Overall, the lowest incarceration rates were in predominantly rural states, with North Dakota’s 50 sentenced prisoners per 100,000 population leading the list. Close behind were Minnesota, with 55, New Hampshire, with 64, and Vermont, with 78.

The study found the incarceration rate for women as of June 30 to be 17 per 100,000, as against 387 per 100,000 for men. Nationally, women prisoners totaled 22,646, up 13.3% for the year and 8.6% since June 30.