The nation’s overall prison population in state and in federal institutions dropped for the third-consecutive year in 2012, but it was not necessarily good news for African Americans.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics has reported that the inmate population in 47 state prison systems and in the Federal Bureau of Prisons from 2011 to 2012 was an estimated 1,571,013 inmates, a drop of 1.7 percent or 27,770 prisoners.

Illinois, Washington and Nevada did not report their inmate counts in time to meet the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ deadline, said Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that seeks alternatives to incarceration. The bureau is scheduled to issue its final report before the end of the year.

The decline in incarceration rates at state prisons is caused by a number of factors, Mauer said. Various states are using alternatives to sending individuals to prison, and states also are dropping unnecessary prosecutions. In addition, states are sentencing fewer individuals to prison in order to balance their budgets, he said.

California, Texas, North Carolina, Colorado, Arkansas, New York, Florida, Virginia and Maryland each decreased their prison populations by over 1,000 in 2012, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics report, “Prisoners in 2012-Advance Counts.”

California accounted for 51 percent of the drop in state prisoners with 15,035 fewer inmates in 2012, compared to 2011. As part of its Public Safety Realignment policy, California housed nonviolent offenders in jails instead of prisons.

“This is the third consecutive year of a decline in the number of state prisoners, which represents a shift in the direction of incarceration practice in the states over the past 30 years,” the bureau reported. “The prison population grew every year between 1978 and 2009, from 307,276 prisoners in 1978 to a high of 1,615,487 prisoners in 2009.”

The U.S. prison population rate dropped to 480 sentenced prisoners per 100,000 residents in 2012. The national imprisonment rate for men was 910 per 100,000 male residents and the female imprisonment rate was 63 sentenced female prisoners per 100,000 female residents.

The decline in state prison populations, however, was offset by a 0.7 percent increase of 1,453 inmates housed last year in federal prisons.

In state institutions, African Americans prisoners did not fare well.

Blacks were 38 percent of the state prison population in 2011, compared to Whites who were 35 percent and Hispanics who were 21 percent. African Americans still are being sentenced to prison at a higher rate than White men but the gap is closing, Mauer said.

In 2011, 284,631 African Americans were in prison for violent crimes, exceeding the number of Whites and Hispanics, although the number of Hispanic inmates sentenced for violent crimes in 2011 exceeded that of Blacks and Whites, the study reported. There were 228,782 Whites sentenced for violent crimes, compared to 162,489 Hispanics.

Some 53 percent of state inmates were sentenced to prison for robbery, murder, non-negligent manslaughter, rape, sexual assault, and aggravated or simple assault.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that more Blacks are sentenced for drug offenses, compared to Whites or Hispanics, although fewer Blacks than Whites were sentenced to prison for property crimes.

The states with the highest imprisonment rates were states with large Black populations in the Deep South and in the Southwest.

They are:

  • Louisiana with 893 inmates per 100,000 state residents
  • Mississippi with 717 inmates per 100,000 state residents
  • Alabama with 650 inmates per 100,000 state residents
  • Oklahoma with 648 inmates per 100,000 state residents
  • Texas with 601 inmates per 100,000 state residents

In the Deep South, states punish people more, Mauer explained. After the end of the Civil War, southern states also passed numerous laws designed specifically to arrest and imprison Black men, sometimes for behavior that wasn’t a crime, but politicians made a crime. A Black man, for example, could be arrested and imprisoned for talking too loud around a White woman. That legacy of arresting and imprisoning large numbers of Black men continues to exist.

Maine, Minnesota and Rhode Island reported the lowest prison incarceration rate per 100,000.

  • Maine reported 145 inmates per 100,000 state residents
  • Minnesota reported 184 inmates per 100,000 state residents
  • Rhode Island reported 190 inmates per 100,000 state residents
  • Minnesota, however, has a high incarceration rate for Black men.

Frederick H. Lowe | Trice Edney Newswire