WASHINGTON - More than one in 100 adults Americans are in jail or prison, an all-time high that is costing state governments nearly $50 billion a year, in addition to more than $5 billion spent by the federal government, according to a report released yesterday.
With more than 2.3 million people behind bars at the start of 2008, the United States leads the world in both the number and the percentage of residents it incarcerates, leaving China a distant second, noted the report by the nonpartisan Pew Center on the States.
The prison population increased by 25,000 from 2007 to 2008, a 2 percent rise.
The ballooning prison population is largely the result of tougher state and federal sentencing imposed since the mid-1980s. Minorities have been hit particularly hard: One in nine black men age 20 to 34 is behind bars. For black women age 35 to 39, the figure is one in 100, compared with one in 355 white women in the same age group.
While studies generally find that imprisoning more offenders reduces crime, the effect is influenced by changes in the unemployment rate, wages, the ratio of police officers to residents, and the share of young people in the population.
When it comes to preventing repeat offenses by nonviolent criminals - who make up about half of the incarcerated population - alternative punishments such as community supervision and mandatory drug counseling may prove just as or more effective than jail time.
"There is no question that putting violent and chronic offenders behind bars lowers the crime rate and provides punishment that is well deserved," said Adam Gelb, one of the study's authors. "On the other hand, there are large numbers of people behind bars who could be supervised in the community safely and effectively at a much lower cost ... "
Over the past two decades, state spending on corrections (adjusted for inflation) increased by 127 percent, while spending on higher education rose by 21 percent. Vermont, Michigan, Oregon, and Connecticut spend more on corrections than on higher education, the report said.