U.S. prison numbers up 35% in 10 years

Times Staff Writer

About 7 million adults -- accounting for 3% of the U.S. population -- were incarcerated, on probation or on parole at the end of 2005, the Justice Department said Thursday.

Of that total, 2.2 million individuals were in federal and state prisons or local jails, 4.1 million were on probation and more than 784,000 were on parole.

“These numbers are not worthy of celebration. We are becoming more punitive,” said James Alan Fox, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern University in Boston. “We put so many more people into prison -- the question is what happens to them when they get out.”

California, the most populous state, held the largest number of inmates (170,676). Only the federal system housed more, according to the annual survey by the department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics.


The total number of inmates rose 35% from 1995 to 2005, but their racial composition was little changed. In 2005, blacks made up 40% of inmates, whites 35% and Latinos 20% -- small changes from a decade earlier.

Although men were far more likely than women to be jailed or imprisoned, the number of women behind bars increased at a faster rate last year -- up 2.6%, compared with a 1.9% increase for men. California had the third highest number of female inmates (11,667), after Texas -- the second most populous state -- and the federal system. As of the end of 2005, women made up 7% of all federal and state prisoners, up from 6.1% a decade earlier.

The Sentencing Project, an advocacy group that supports alternatives to incarceration, blamed the larger number of women behind bars on harsh sentences handed down for nonviolent drug offenses. Drug crimes -- up 64.8% from 1996 to 2003 -- accounted for the largest increase in the number of inmates in the federal system.

“What is our prison system accomplishing? They are not reducing crime because people are not being rehabilitated,” said Kara Gotsch of the Sentencing Project. She cited “a lack of rehabilitative services in programs, especially with limited access to drug rehabilitation.”