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America's One-Million Nonviolent Prisoners

[Press Release] [View the Report]

CONTACT: Daniel Macallair
E-mail: []
Tel: (415) 621-5661 x310

I. Introduction

The Justice Department recently released data showing that the number of prisoners in America rose to 1.8 million last year, the highest level ever, and the second largest prison population in the world. Using the most recent Justice Department data, the Justice Policy Institute found that last year two-thirds of those 1.8 million were incarcerated for nonviolent offenses, representing the first time in American history that more than one million (1,185,458) people were confined for crimes involving no violence.

II. Major Findings

A. One million Nonviolent Offenders
Contrary to the public perception that the incarceration of violent offenders has driven America's prison growth, the Institute found that 77% of the growth in intake to America's state and federal prisons between 1978 and 1996 was accounted for by nonviolent offenders. According to data collected by the United States Justice Department, from 1978 to 1996, the number of violent offenders entering our nation's prisons doubled (from 43,733 to 98,672 inmates); the number of nonviolent offenders tripled (from 83,721 to 261,796 inmates) and the number of drug offenders increased seven-fold (from 14,241 to 114,071 inmates). Justice Department surveys show that 52.7% of state prison inmates, 73.7% of jail inmates, and 87.6% of federal inmates were imprisoned for offenses which involved neither harm, nor the threat of harm, to a victim. Based on this data, we estimate that by the end of 1998, there were 440,088 nonviolent jail inmates, 639,280 nonviolent state prison inmates, and 106,090 nonviolent federal prisoners locked up in America, for a total 1,185,458 nonviolent prisoners.

B. Cost of Incarceration
Institute researchers found, in total, it cost America $24 billion to incarcerate its 1 .2 million nonviolent offenders last year. The $24 billion figure is almost 50% larger than the entire $16.6 billion the federal government currently spends on a welfare program that serves 8.5 million people. The costs of incarcerating 1.2 million non-violent offenders is 6 times more than the federal government spent on child care for 1.25 million children. Previous JPI reports have found a nearly a dollar-for-dollar state and federal funding tradeoff between corrections and higher education.

C. Crime control benefits of incarceration
It has been argued that this growth in imprisonment has reduced crime across the nation. Yet jurisdictions which have zealously increased their incarceration rates have not experienced higher crime drops than jurisdictions that have had made more modest use of incarceration.

Between 1992 and 1997, California's prison population grew by 30%, or about 270 inmates per week, compared to New York State's more modest growth of 30 inmates a week. While New York's violent crime rate 38.6 % and its murder rate fell by 54.5 % over the same period, California's violent crime rate fell by a more modest 23%, and its murder rate fell by 28%. Put another way, New York experienced a percentage drop in homicides which was half again as great as the percentage drop in California's homicide rate, despite the fact that California added 9 times as many inmates per week to its prisons as New York.

Canada, a country with about as many people as the state of California, has about one fourth as many people behind bars, and provides a good contrast for judging the crime control value of mass incarceration. With 4.3 times as many prisoners, California has 4.6 times the homicide rate of Canada. Between 1992 and 1996, Canada increased its prison population by a modest 2,370 inmates (7%), while California's prison population grew by 36,069 inmates (25% ). Surprisingly, during that same period, both the Canadian and California homicide rates declined at exactly the same rate of 24%.

III. Conclusion and Recommendations

The policy implications of imprisoning more than one million nonviolent prisoners are profound, and warrant a great deal of public discussion and debate. In the short term, to take stress off the burgeoning of state and federal prison systems, the authors recommend the following:

That the states and the federal government should abolish mandatory sentencing schemes which send nonviolent offenders to prison for lengthy periods of time.

Systems such as the one in Minnesota, should be replicated nationwide. Minnesota's sentencing law change during the 1980s drastically slowed prison growth in that state and reserved prison space for violent and more serious offenders, while establishing a network of support programs for less serious offenders. New federal funds (and those now earmarked exclusively for prison construction) should be allocated to help states develop ways to substantially reduce the number of nonviolent prisoners in their systems and to carefully evaluate the impacts those reforms have on crime.

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