Study: 7.3 million in U.S. prison system in ’07

Some of the nation's most high-profile federal inmates are housed at the Supermax prison in Colorado.
A record number of Americans served time in corrections systems across the country in 2007, according to a report released Monday by the Pew Center on the States.

The U.S. correctional population — those in jail, prison, on probation or on parole — totaled 7.3 million, or 1 in every 31 adults. The Pew Center on the States compiled the information from Justice Department and Census Bureau statistics. America’s prison population has skyrocketed over the past quarter century. In 1982, 1 in 77 adults were in the correctional system in one form or another, totaling 2.2 million people. The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prison inmates, the center said. The numbers vary widely by race and gender. “Black adults are four times as likely as whites and nearly 2.5 times as likely as Hispanics to be under correctional control. One in 11 black adults — 9.2 percent — was under correctional supervision at year-end 2007,” the report said. “And although the number of female offenders continues to grow, men of all races are under correctional control at a rate five times that of women.”

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There are also wide differences depending on the state. Georgia tops the nation, with 1 in 13 adults in the state’s corrections system, while in New Hampshire the figure is 1 in 88. Southern states tended to have higher rates, with Plains and rural Northeastern states coming in lower. “State policy choices are responsible for creating this mess and state policy choices can get us out,” said Adam Gelb, director of the Public Safety Performance Project for the Pew Center on the States. “There are two things, and two things only that determine the size and cost of the prison system.” Dealing out longer sentences and putting more people behind bars have been the hallmarks of Southern states, he said. America’s record prison population has had a huge budgetary effect, according to the report, with increased corrections spending outstripping everything at the state level except for Medicaid. Gelb said prison costs 22 times more than community-based corrections. “If you talk to judges and prosecutors practically anywhere in this country, they will tell you if they had stronger community corrections, they wouldn’t have to send so many people [to prison] for so many low-level offenses,” he said. For California, it has meant overcrowded prisons. In February, federal judges tentatively ruled that California must reduce the number of inmates in its prison system by up to 40 percent to stop a constitutional violation of prisoners’ rights. Implementing the court’s ruling would result in up to 58,000 prisoners being released, said Matthew Cate, California’s corrections and rehabilitation secretary, describing it as a threat to public safety. The Pew Center on the States, through its Public Safety Performance Project, says it promotes “fiscally sound, data-driven policies and practices in sentencing and corrections that protect public safety, hold offenders accountable, and control corrections costs.”