Since 1987, Alaska's prison population has grown by 45.5 per cent. In 1997 alone the growth rate was 13.6 per cent, one of the highest in the nation. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Alaska had a sentenced prison population of 4,220 at the end of 1997.
The total number of prisoners under the jurisdiction of federal or state adult correctional authorities was 1,244,554 at year-end 1997. During the year the states and the District of Columbia added 53,757 prisoners, and the federal prison system added 7,429 prisoners. Overall, the nation's prison population grew 5.2 per cent, which was less than the average annual growth of 7.0 per cent since 1990. In absolute numbers, prison growth during 1997 was equivalent to 1,177 more inmates per week, up from 1,106 per week in 1996.
Nationally, the rate of incarceration in prisons at year-end 1997 was 445 sentenced inmates per 100,000 residents up from 292 in 1990. On December 31, 1997, 1 in every 117 men and 1 in every 1,852 women were sentenced prisoners under the jurisdiction of state or federal correctional authorities. The Alaska rate of incarceration was 420 per 100,000 population.
Rates of Increase
Hawaii experienced the largest increase for 1997 (up 23.4%), followed by West Virginia (15.4%), Alaska and Maine (13.6%), Vermont (13.5%), Kentucky (13.1%), and Wisconsin (13.0%). Three states and the District of Columbia experienced a decline in prison populations. Oregon had the largest decline (down 7.6%), followed by Montana (down 2.2%), New Mexico (down 0.8%), and the District of Columbia (down 0.2%).
In absolute numbers of inmates, 5 jurisdictions grew by at least 2,000. California (up 11,498 inmates) experienced the largest growth, followed by Texas (up 8,346), the federal system (up 7,429), Louisiana (up 2,486), and Michigan (up 2,422). These five jurisdictions, which incarcerated over 40 per cent of all prisoners, accounted for 53 per cent of the total growth during 1997.
Demographics of Incarceration
When incarceration rates are estimated separately for men and women, black males in their twenties and thirties are found to have very high rates relative to other groups (Table 1). Of black males age 25 to 29, 8.3 per cent were in prison in 1996, compared to 2.6 per cent of Hispanic males and about 0.8 per cent of white males in the same age group. Although incarceration rates drop with age, the percentage of black males age 45 to 54 in prison in 1996 was still nearly 2.8 per cent—equivalent to the highest rate among Hispanic males (age 20 to 24) and more than 3 times larger than the highest rate (0.9%) among white males (age 30 to 34).
Female incarceration rates, though substantially lower than male incarceration rates at every age, reveal similar racial and ethnic disparities. Black females (with an incarceration rate of 188 per 100,000) were more than twice as likely as Hispanic females (78 per 100,000) and 8 times more likely than white females (23 per 100,000) to be in prison in 1996. These differences among white, black, and Hispanic females were consistent across all age groups.
Between 1990 and 1996 the distribution of the four major offense categories—violent, property, drug, and public-order offenses—did not change among state prisoners.
In absolute numbers, however, the largest growth in state inmates was among violent offenders. Between 1990 and 1996 the number of violent offenders grew 179,500 while the number of drug offenders grew 87,900 (Table 2). As a percentage of the total growth, violent offenders accounted for 50 per cent of the total growth; drug offenders, 25 per cent; property offenders, 18 per cent; and public-order offenders, 7 per cent.
Detailed estimates of the state inmates at the end of 1990 and 1996 reveal differences in the sources of growth among male and female inmates. During the period the number of female inmates serving time for drug offenses doubled, while the number of male inmates in for drug offenses rose 55 per cent. The number serving time for violent offenses, however, rose at about the same pace (up 57% for men and 58% for women).
Overall, the increasing number of drug offenses accounted for 30 per cent of the total growth among black inmates, 23 per cent of the total growth among Hispanic inmates, and 16 per cent of the growth among white inmates (Table 3). Violent offenders accounted for the largest source of growth for all groups—among white inmates (46%), black inmates (50%), and Hispanic inmates (54%).
Prisoners sentenced for drug offenses constituted the largest group of federal inmates (60%) in 1996, up from 53 per cent in 1990 (Table 4). On September 30, 1996, the date of the latest available data, federal prisons held 55,194 sentenced drug offenders, compared to 31,300 at the end of 1990. Between 1990 and 1996 the percentage of violent federal inmates declined from 18 per cent to 12 per cent. As a percentage of all federal inmates, robbers showed the largest decline, from 12 per cent to 9 per cent.
During the same period, the number of federal inmates held for weapons and immigration offenses more than doubled. The number of weapons offenders rose from 3,234 in 1990 to 7,480 in 1996; immigration offenders rose from 1,645 to 4,476. By September 30, 1996, weapon offenders represented 8.1 per cent of federal inmates and immigration violators 4.8 per cent.
As a consequence of the dramatic growth in the number of drug offenders, an increasing percentage of federal prisoners are black or Hispanic. Between 1990 and 1996, the per cent black among federal inmates rose from 30 per cent to 38 per cent, while the per cent white declined from 38 per cent to 30 per cent and the per cent Hispanic remained unchanged (about 28%).
As a per cent of the total growth, drug offenses accounted for a greater share of the increases among black inmates (82%) than among Hispanic (67%) or white inmates (65%). Overall, black and Hispanic inmates accounted for three-quarters of the total increase in federal inmates.
Prisons generally require reserve capacity to operate efficiently. Dormitories and cells need to be maintained and repaired periodically, special housing is needed for protective custody and disciplinary cases, and space may be needed to cope with emergencies.
At the end of 1997, 16 states and the District of Columbia reported that they were operating at or below 99 per cent of their highest capacity. Thirty-six states and the federal prison system reported operating at 100 per cent or more of their lowest capacity. New Mexico, which was operating at 82 per cent of its lowest capacity, had the least crowded prison system. California, operating at over twice its highest reported capacity (206%), had the most crowded system.
By year-end 1997 the federal prison system was estimated to be operating at 19 per cent over capacity, decreasing since year-end 1996 (25%). Overall, state prisons were estimated to be operating at 15 per cent above their highest capacity, down slightly from the 16 per cent for last year. Based on the lowest capacity figures, state prisons were operating at 24 per cent over capacity at year-end 1997, continuing the steady decline from 31 per cent in 1991. Alaska was reported at 147 per cent of capacity at the end of 1997.