Reflecting a 15-year trend, the number of Americans behind bars or on probation or parole climbed to a record 5.1 million last year, according to a Justice Department study released Sunday.
A total of 2.7% of the nation’s population was either locked up or under legal supervision at the end of 1994, the department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics found. Nearly three-quarters of those in the criminal justice system were on probation or parole in the community rather than serving time behind bars.
Since 1980, state and federal prison populations have skyrocketed, rising 213%, and probation rolls have jumped 165%. The average annual rate of growth has been 7.6%; the figure for 1994 was 3.9%.
Criminal justice experts said the sharp increases reflect tougher sentencing on a range of crimes as well as a greater proportion of drug arrests involving longer prison terms. At the same time, they said, the consequent pressure to ease congestion in packed prisons and jails has led to early release or expanded use of alternatives to incarceration.
Alfred A. Blumstein, a criminologist at the Heinz School of Public Policy and Management at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa., said he believes that the criminal justice system “may be overextending itself” and that increased emphasis on such programs as drug treatment and prevention may be more effective in the long run than meting out harsher sentences.
“Just by locking away more people, we do avert crimes, but at a cost,” Blumstein said. “We have no good estimates of how much benefit we get for . . . the cost of $25,000 per person per year in prison or jail.”
Nearly 3 million individuals were on probation as of Dec. 31, the study found. Probation is a sentence handed out by courts that generally involves reporting requirements and restrictions on travel and other activities. Violations can bring incarceration.
Half of those on probation were found guilty of committing a felony; one out of seven had been convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol.
Another 690,000 individuals were on parole, or conditionally released under supervision, after serving a prison term. Parolees can be returned to prison for violating a set of rules or committing another offense. All but 5% had served time for felonies.
The Justice Department survey found that 82% of those on probation or parole had maintained regular contact with a supervising agency as required. Another 9% had failed to report or could not be located. The rest were not required to maintain regular contact.
Texas had the most individuals on probation and parole, with 503,000--more than 3.8% of the state’s adults. California followed with 370,000.
The figures show that a higher percentage of males and whites are on probation than are in the prison system. Women make up 21% of all probationers and only 6% of all prisoners. Blacks make up 32% of those on probation and 50% of the prison population.
Half of those in prison have committed a violent crime; 80% have previous convictions.
Prisons are running at 20% over capacity, and more than 4% of those sent to prison are backed up at local jails despite considerable prison construction, forcing the early release of some inmates, said Lawrence A. Greenfeld, a deputy director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics.