During the past decade, the population of America's jails and prisons has more than doubled to nearly 1.6 million people. That's more prisoners than at any other time in the country's history.
But new statistics released by the United States Justice Department paint a glimmer of hope that the seeming ever-expanding population of inmates may be starting to stabilize.
Rather than the nearly 8 percent annual increases in prisoner population experienced throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, last year saw an increase of only 4.4 percent, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Some observers say it is too early to declare that the US prisoner population is starting to level off. Others contend that with continued reliance on mandatory sentencing such as California's "three strikes, you're out," prisoner populations will continue to rise throughout the 1990s. Still, the new statistics highlight the debate over whether prison sentences have any impact on crime.
Critics of the lock-'em-up strategy say the nation is wasting money warehousing a large number of criminals - many of them nonviolent - when incarceration should be reserved for only the most dangerous offenders.
Proponents of tough sentences counter that the prospect of a long prison term acts as a deterrent to prospective criminals. They also cite declining crime rates in recent years as evidence that prisons can be an effective crime-fighting tool.
"The main thing is that people are going to prison," says Edwin Meese, former attorney general in the Reagan administration who is now a criminal justice expert at the Heritage Foundation, a think tank in Washington.
"In the 1950s and 1960s, very few people went to prison," Mr. Meese says. "In California in 1971, we found that as few as 10 percent or less of convicted felons were going to state prison. The result was that we had a 300 percent increase in crime and a 500 percent increase in violent crime." Now, he says, criminals are beginning to understand that if they are caught they face serious penalties.
Marc Mauer of the Washington-based Sentencing Project, a prison alternative advocacy group, says he sees no direct link between prisons and the crime rate. "If incarceration was the way to cut crime, we should be one of the most crime-free nations on earth," he says. In the late 1980s, incarceration rates shot up but at the same time so did crime rates, Mr. Mauer says.
Eric Lotke of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives in Alexandria, Va., says mandatory sentencing laws for repeat offenders and the war on drugs are landing larger numbers of nonviolent criminals in prison. He says 75 to 80 percent of new admissions to prison are nonviolent offenders, and overall they now account for 50 to 55 percent of the nation's prisoners.
"This is something that the American people need to know," Mr. Lotke says. "When you say crime and prison, most people think murder, rape, drug kingpin. That is what people think, but that isn't what they are getting."
Meese says the total number of violent criminals has increased in prisons, although he acknowledges that the proportion of drug offenders is increasing faster. He adds that other nonviolent criminals may have received prison sentences because they are career, habitual criminals who have demonstrated through multiple prior arrests that the only alternative is incarceration.
"The problems can't just be addressed by putting people in prison," says Meese. But he adds, "In terms of public protection, the increased focus on sending serious habitual offenders to prison seems to be paying off."
Mauer disagrees. He says a large part of the nation's crime problem is driven by young men aged 15 to 24 who are poorly educated and have little if any prospect of a better world.