The Punishing Decade (3/00)

America’s imprisoned population grew at a faster rate during the 1990s than during any decade in recorded history, according to new data released by the Justice Policy Institute. The US entered the 1990s with 1,145,300 inmates in its jails and prisons, and on December 31, 1999, there will be an estimated 1,983,084 adults behind bars. The Institute estimates that America’s incarcerated population will top 2 million on approximately February 15, 2000.

The prison growth during the 1990s dwarfed the growth of any previous decade; it exceeded the prison growth of the 1980s by 61 percent, and is nearly 30 times the average prison population growth of any decade prior to the 1970s.

"It can truly be said that the 1990s have been our most punishing decade," stated Vincent Schiraldi, Director of the Justice Policy Institute. "As we enter the new millennium, the ascendance of prisons as our decade’s major public works project and social program is a sad legacy."

The Institute estimated that $39 billion will be spent to operate US prisons and jails by year end 1999, a figure which will grow to $41 billion by yearend 2000.  The Institute also reported that, in 1995, states around the country spent more building prisons than building universities for the first time and that two thirds of those incarcerated in prison and jail (approximately 1.2 million inmates) are imprisoned for non-violent offenses.

"Our incarceration binge is America’s real Y2K problem," stated Jason Ziedenberg, Policy Analyst at the Institute. "As we approach two million prisoners in 2000, we have to find alternatives to incarceration to solve America’s pressing social problems."

The Washington, DC-based Justice Policy Institute is a policy development and research body which promotes effective and sensible approaches to America’s justice system. JPI is a project of the non-profit Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. A footnoted version of this report and accompanying graphs can be viewed on our website at For more information, contact Vincent Schiraldi or Jason Ziedenberg at (202)678-9282.