Packing the Prisons


Although the war on drugs reached its publicity peak in the late 1980s, it continues to fuel a steady increase in the U.S. prison population. The Bureau of Justice Statistics recently announced that the number of inmates in state and federal prisons reached an all-time high of 883,593 at the end of 1992. That's 329 per 100,000 U.S. residents, up from 139 in 1980.

The incarceration rate is growing even though personal and household crimes have declined by about 25 percent since 1980. Justice Department statistics show that the growth in the prison population is largely due to drug arrests, which more than doubled during the '80s.

In 1990, for the first time, the number of people sent to state and federal prisons for drug offenses (103,800) exceeded the number imprisoned for property crimes (102,400) or violent crimes (87,200). One-third of state felony convictions in 1990 were for drug offenses. Between 1986 and 1990, state felony convictions rose by 42 percent. Drug trafficking, which represented 13 percent of convictions in 1986 and 20 percent in 1990, accounted for 37 percent of the increase.

These arrests and convictions have had a predictable effect on the prison population. The share of state prisoners serving time for drug offenses rose from 9 percent in 1986 to 21 percent in 1990. The proportion of drug offenders in federal prisons increased from 25 percent in 1980 to 54 percent in 1990.