Even though the crime rate is down, prison populations grew 2.6 percent last year, according to the most recent Bureau of Justice statistics.

More than 2.1 million persons were incarcerated in federal, state or local facilities at the end of last year, according to the report. The growth rate in the number of prisoners was the largest in three years.

The United States has now overtaken Russia as having a higher percentage of its citizens behind bars than any other country, according to the Baltimore Sun. One in every 143 U.S. residents was in prison or jail at yearend 2002, according to the statistics

It costs about $40 billion a year to house, feed and care for the nationwide prison population, according to the Associated Press.

Experts attribute the growing prison population to mandatory sentencing for drug offenders, “three-strikes” laws that put habitual offenders behind bars and an increase in white-collar and non-violent criminals going to prison.

Advocates for prison alternatives say the report points to a need for more rehabilitation options for drug offenders, as opposed to the more costly option of jail.

“The nation needs to break the chains of our addiction to prison, and find less costly and more effective policies like treatment,” Will Harrell, executive director of the Texas American Civil Liberties Union, told USA TODAY.

While experts say jailing criminals probably reduces crime—the FBI reported a slight drop in the crime rate last year—the statistics reveal stark racial inequities in sentencing.

Black males age 20-39 accounted for about a third of all sentenced state or federal prison inmates. About 10 percent of the country’s black male population between 25 and 29 was in prison, compared to 2.4 percent of Hispanic males and 1.2 percent of white males in the same age group.

The numbers of female prisoners increased 4.9 percent in 2002, double the rate of men. The female prison population has grown 42 percent since 1995, but men are still 15 times more likely than women to be in prison. At yearend 2002 there were 97,491 women in prison—60 sentenced female inmates per 100,000 women—compared to 1.3 million males, or 906 inmates per 100,000 men.

Seventeen states reported increases of at least 5 percent in prison populations, while nine states had decreases. Twenty-five states and the federal prison system were operating at or above their highest capacity.

Jodi Mathews is news writer for EthicsDaily.com.

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