For the first time the Bureau of Justice Statistics has released figures on the prevalence of imprisonment among the U.S. population—that is, an estimate of the number of people who have been incarcerated at some time in their life in a state or federal prison. According to the BJS analysis, “Prevalence of Imprisonment in the U.S. Population, 1974-2001,” at the end of 2001 a total of 5,618,00 U.S. adult residents—about 1 in 37—had served time in prison at some point. This total includes 1,319,000 who were prisoners at that time and 4,299,000 who were former prisoners. This was 2.7 percent of the adult population in the United States. Moreover, if rates of incarceration for the first time remain the same, by 2010 the total number of adults who will have served time in prison will be 7.7 million—3.4 percent of the adult population. These BJS figures do not include those who have spent time in jail or in a juvenile facility—figures which would substantially increase the totals.
As is now frequently noted, the rate of incarceration for the country as a whole has been increasing inexorably over the last two decades—more than tripling since 1980. In that year, there were 139 sentenced prisoners in state or federal prisons per 100,000 population. By 2002 that rate had risen to 476.
The recently released figures on the prevalence of imprisonment present another perspective on the degree to which incarceration policies are affecting an increasingly large segment of the population. In 1974, only 1.3 percent of the total adult population had ever been incarcerated. By 2001, this percentage had more than doubled.
According to BJS calculations, nearly two-thirds of this growth in the figures for prevalence of incarceration is due to an increase in the rate of first incarceration—that is, a substantial increase in the rate at which people are being sentenced to prison for the first time.In 2001, almost 17 percent of Black males were current or former prisoners in federal or state institutions—a rate 6 times that of Caucasian males (2.6%) and twice that of Hispanic males (7.7%). Female rates, although always lower, show similar ethnic disproportions. Adult black females were 2.5 times more likely than Hispanic women and 5.5 times more likely than Caucasian females to have served time in prison; they formed 1.7 percent of the population of current or former prisoners.
The figures in this article were taken from the Bureau of Justice Statistics report “Prevalence of Imprisonment in the U.S. Population, 1974-2001,” NCJ-197976 and other BJS reports.