Stateline Story

Prison-Population Boom Means Added Costs for States

  • August 01, 2003
  • By Mike Clements

The U.S. prison population rose 2.6 percent to 2,166,260 inmates during 2002, according to a recently released U.S. Justice Department report. The increase comes at a challenging time for states mired in a deep fiscal crisis, since 55 percent of all inmates are housed in state prisons.

According to The Sentencing Project, a non-profit research and advocacy organization, states currently spend about $40 billion a year collectively on their prison systems.

"States can't continue to support the current population growth given the budget crisis they're facing," said Justice Department statistician Paige Harrison, who coauthored the report.

Here are some highlights of the report:

  • The 2.6 percent population increase was more than twice the reported growth from 2000 to 2001 and is equal to an additional 700 inmates each week. 
  • Seventeen states reported inmate increases of at least 5 percent. Maine led all states with an increase of 11.5 percent, followed by Rhode Island at 8.6 percent. Nine states reported decreases, lead by Alaska at 3.8 percent and Illinois 3.7 percent. 
  • Between July 1, 2001, and December 31, 2001, the number of inmates under State jurisdiction increased by 15,713.
  • About 1 in every 143 U.S. residents were in state or federal prison or a local jail, as of last December 31. 
  • State prisons were operating between 1 percent and 16 percent over capacity at the end of 2002.

Experts were surprised at the size of the increase, which comes when the FBI reported a small decline in serious crime in 2002. Experts said they were expecting a small incremental rise at most as states are making efforts to reduce costs.

Harrison said much of the prison population growth can be attributed to an increase in the number of people sent to prison in several of the larger states, such as Pennsylvania, California and Michigan, which helped drive up the total.

The increase is part of a trend that's been going on since the late 1980s and 1990s, as states got tough on all types of lawbreakers, said The Sentencing Project's Ryan King.

During those years, many states passed "Three Strikes and You're Out" and "Truth in Sentencing" laws, which require that prisoners serve at least 85 percent of their prison terms, he said.

"The people in prison are accumulating because they're not getting let out like they were in the past," King told Stateline.org.

John Laub, a University of Maryland criminology professor, said that even in a time of budget belt tightening, many states are not willing to be perceived as compromising public safety to save money.

"There are many things that get cut before they cut public safety and corrections. There is a public safety will not be compromised' attitude." said Laub, who is also president of the American Society of Criminology.

This is shown by the fact that states like Pennsylvania continue to build prisons to alleviate overcrowding. The state has just announced the opening of a new prison that will house 2,200 inmates, said Barbara Wilhelm of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. Another facility is under construction and could open in 2005.

This comes despite the fact that Pennsylvania already spends more than $1 billion on its prison system and faces a deficit reported to be several billion dollars.

Several experts said states would probably soon be exploring options other than prison such as parole and rehabilitation, particularly for first time, non-violent offenders in an effort to reduce prison costs.

"Depending on how long this fiscal crisis goes, I think states are going to reexamine whether they're going to decrease incarceration times for non-violent offenders," said Scott Pattison, executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers.

Some states are already looking at ways to reduce their prison populations. South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds (R) has appointed a panel to make recommendations to reduce the state's rising number of inmates, which increased 97 percent between 1990 and 2000, reported the Sioux Fall's Argus Leader. The group is reportedly focusing on ways to keep repeat offenders out of prison.