April 07, 2003
Our expanding prison system

Some poor schmuck has just become our nation's two millionth inmate. I'm willing to bet there was no prize for this distinction.

This article contains a truly puzzling segment:

In a one-day head count conducted June 30, 2002, the 50 states, the District of Columbia and the federal government held 1,355,748 prisoners, accounting for two-thirds of the nation's incarcerated population, according to the annual survey by the department's Bureau of Justice Statistics. Local, municipal and county facilities nationwide held 665,475 inmates on that day.

Statisticians at the agency, which has been tracking the nation's prison population since 1977, had acknowledged it was only a matter of time before this benchmark was reached. But underlying the decades-long growth trend is a twist: The federal prison numbers are rising rapidly, but the growth rate in state prisons is slowing. While the federal prison system expanded by 5.7 percent between 2001 and 2002 -- adding 8,042 inmates -- state prisons grew by just 0.9 percent, or 12,440 new inmates. The rate of increase among the federal prison population has outpaced the states' since 1995.

It took me quite some time to make sense of the numbers in these paragraphs, and I had to seach Google News to find other versions of this story to figure it out. This article contained the key:

The federal government accounted for more inmates than any state, with almost 162,000, according to a report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, part of the Justice Department. That number includes the transfer of about 8,900 District of Columbia prisoners to the federal system.

OK, 8000 is about 5.7% of 154,000, bringing us to 162,000. That leaves about 1,290,000 for the states, so now the 0.9% growth based on 12,440 additions fits. When I first read this story, I thought the 1,355,748 number represented all federal inmates, while the 665,745 figure meant all state prisoners. I hadn't realized that the distinction was between "prison" (i.e., convicts serving their sentences) and "jail" (i.e., arrestees awaiting trial/arraignment/bail/etc). Now I realize the 1.3 million total lumped federal and state inmates together, so I'd have had to infer the federal versus state prison totals from the growth rates given. Easy enough if you remember "part over whole equals percent over 100", but more work than I'd bargained for when I started reading.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on April 07, 2003 to Crime and Punishment | TrackBack