U.S. Prisons: Growing But Slowing

A rescue helicopter heads down Big Windy Creek to retrieve the body of James Kim, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2006, in the Siskiyou National Forest in Oregon. Kim, a San Francisco man who got stranded in the snowy wilderness with his family nearly two weeks ago, was found dead Wednesday in a mountain creek.
AP Photo/Jamie Francis, Pool

The U.S. has an incarceration rate that is five times higher than any European country—almost seven out of every 1,000 Americans are behind bars.

But while the latest Justice Department figures show the U.S. prison population is still growing, CBS News Correspondent Jim Stewart reports there are signs that growth may finally be slowing up.

Last year, the U.S. prison population grew at its lowest rate in 21 years. Nonetheless, the overall figures are still astounding.

A just released report from the Justice Department found 2,026,596 people were serving time last year. And in an earlier report, the department found a record 4.5 million people either on parole or probation. One state-- Georgia, had more than 6 percent of its entire adult population under some sort of judicial supervision.

As impressive as those numbers are, however, it doesn't take into account the number of people entering America's smaller city and county jails - which is now 10 million a year and growing.

Most of those people—arrested for smaller crimes like public drunkenness and traffic violations—do not end up going to prison, but they are causing an increasing strain on smaller city and county budgets.

Montgomery County Maryland, for example, already has two full jails and is building another because that's what lawmakers want.

"In many jurisdictions legislators have moved to remove judicial discretion in hopes of elongating sentences and responding to what they believe to be a public desire for getting tough," says Art Wallenstein, Director of the Montgomery County Corrections Department.

And last year's slowdown in inmates may mean that tougher sentences are finally having an effect. In short, many of those in prison now aren't new criminals, say experts, but veteran criminals.

"We have seen real increase in time served, we're seeing dramatic declines in rates of release from prison," says Allen Beck of the Justice Department.

In fact, the report found the average inmate today doesn't stand a chance of being let out until he's served at least three-and-a-half years behind bars—which is another all-time high.