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Looking Beneath National Incarceration Rates

Look beneath the national incarceration numbers and you’ll find the growth in 2007 transcended geographical boundaries. A majority of states in all four regions of the country finished the year with more prisoners than they housed at the start. The South led the way, with its population jumping from 623,563 to 641,024—a rise of 2.8 percent. Only three of the 16 states in the southern region reported a drop in inmates, while nine experienced growth exceeding 4 percent. In the West, meanwhile, Arizona outpaced all other states, and in the Northeast, New Hampshire’s population grew the fastest. Among Midwestern states, Iowa was the growth leader, expanding its inmate count by 6.1 percent.

All told, 36 states reported higher numbers as 2008 dawned. Among the eight largest correctional agencies—those with more than 50,000 inmates—four grew (Ohio, Florida, Georgia and the Federal Bureau of Prisons) while four (New York, Michigan, Texas and California) saw their populations dip.

Ten states, meanwhile, experienced an inmate population jump of 5 percent or greater, a list topped by Kentucky, with a surge of 12 percent.

Kentucky and Nevada are two states with relatively small correctional systems hit hard by growth. In Kentucky, an indeterminate sentencing structure means the parole board has broad powers to determine when a prisoner is suitable for release—and thus, to a large degree, how big the crowd behind bars will be. Guidelines require inmates to serve a certain proportion of their sentence, but beyond that, board discretion comes into play in deciding whether to grant or deny parole. Over the past year, under new appointees to the board, the parole grant rate declined and the prison population increased as more inmates stayed locked up for a longer time. The result of this and other policies was a 12 percent jump in the incarcerated population in 2007. Absent a change of direction, projections show the inmate count will continue to rise to nearly 31,000—an increase of 40 percent—over the next decade.

Out West, Nevada at the start of the 2007 legislative session also faced a rapidly expanding prison population, fueled by an unexpected jump in prison admissions from the Las Vegas area. New forecasts warned that without intervention by the state, the population would continue its steep ascent, climbing from 13,000 prisoners to more than 18,000 over the next 10 years. The fiscal consequences were alarming. Among other things, the growth forced prisoners from Washington and Wyoming who were housed in Nevada back to those states. That meant both lost revenue and new appropriations from the state general fund. At the beginning of 2008, Nevada’s jails and prisons held 13,552 inmates, a 5 percent jump over the number incarcerated in the Silver State at the end of 2006.

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