Civil Liberties

Doing Time


At the end of 1998, America's state and federal prisons were overstuffed with more than 1.3 million inmates, up from 774,000 in 1990. Another 592,000 were sitting in local jails either awaiting trial or serving a sentence of less than a year.

The boom is due to an increase in the rate at which Americans are locked up. There were large variations among jurisdictions and demographic groups, with incarceration rates highest in the South and, perhaps not coincidentally, among blacks. Lock-up rates were highest in the District of Columbia (1,913 per 100,000 residents); Louisiana (736 per 100,000); and George W. Bush's Texas (724 per 100,000). Men were incarcerated at a rate of 888 per 100,000, while women served time at a rate of 57 per 100,000 (one gender gap you don't hear much about).

Crime rates fell over the same period. In 1990, 349 property crimes were reported per 100,000 households, a figure that had dropped to 217 in 1998. The incapacitation effect, say criminologists, explains the divergent trends: People in prison can't commit more crimes while locked up and therefore crime rates drop as prisons fill up. However, as stories of police scandals and DNA testing exonerating Death Row inmates fill the news, it seems that at least part of that peace has been paid for by innocent people.