Population at Portage jail holding steady

By Deanna Hohler Bottar Record-Courier staff write Published:

While jail populations nationwide rose by nearly 10 percent between 1996 and 1997, figures at the Portage County Jail in Shalersville remained steady, according to Portage County Sheriff Duane Kaley.

Across the country, the figures for prisoners in local jails rose by more than the average. From July 1, 1996 to June 30, 1997 inmates in local jails grew by 48,587, or 9.4 percent, "considerably more than the 4.9 percent average annual growth since 1990," according to the U.S. Justice Department.

During 1997, 4,438 people were housed at the Portage County facility, which opened in 1995. The average monthly jail population during 1997 so far has ranged between 112 and nearly 150.

During January, the jail population averaged at about 130. In February, the average number of inmates was 128 _ with a month-long high of 146 and a low of 112.

Kaley said the jail saw its greatest increase between 1995 and 1996 when the jail moved from its former home in the Portage County Courthouse to its new location on Infirmary Road in the justice center.

"That was when we were out from under the federal court order," Kaley said, explaining how a lawsuit prompted a mandate from the high court to build a larger facility.

When the jail was in the courthouse, the population was restricted to 40 inmates. The new jail can house up to 182 people, Kaley added.

According to other justice department figures, one in every 155 U.S. residents was behind bars somewhere in America as of mid-1997.

The nation's prison and jail population stood at more than 1.7 million by June 30, an increase of nearly 6 percent from an estimated 1.6. million last year, according to a new report Sunday by the department's Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The jump was slightly smaller than those recorded in earlier years. From 1990 to 1997, the number increased an average of 6.5 percent annually. The number of prisoners behind bars in state and federal institutions grew in 1997 by 55,198, or 4.7 percent. That was also less than the annual average increase, which has stood 7.7 percent since 1990.

The Sentencing Project, a private group that advocates less imprisonment and more use of creative alternatives, noted the total U.S. prison population is still on the rise even though crime rates have been sliding steadily since 1992.

The 1997 figures "mark a quarter century of continuous increase in the national prison population, an unprecedented rise in the nation's history," the group said in a written statement. "This (rise) is primarily due to the ongoing impact of harsh sentencing policies and the growing number of offenders on probation and parole who are sent to prison."

During the last 25 years, the federal and state inmate population has increased six-fold from just 200,000 in 1972, according to the group.

"On a per capita basis, the United States is now second only to Russia in its rate of incarceration and locks up its citizens at a rate five to 10 times that of most industrialized nations," the group said.

The continued growth in inmates may account for the decrease in crime rates. But the Sentencing Project cautions that "any relationship can be vastly overstated" and notes that some of the figures are contradictory.

For example, crime increased between 1984 and 1991 while the prison population also increased 77 percent. Looking at the period from 1970 and 1995, the group reported that crime rates twice increased and twice decreased even though incarceration steadily rose.

"In New York City, which leads the nation in reducing crime, the decline in crime may be the result of changes in policing and other factors, but it is not the result of locking up more offenders," the group said.

Other details of the report:

Two-thirds of all inmates, more than 1.1 million, were in federal and state prisons, and the rest, 567,079 prisoners, were held in local facilities.

Hawaii recorded the biggest prisoner increase with 21.6 percent, followed by North Dakota, up 15.5 percent, and Wisconsin, up 15.4 percent.

The only states to report declines were Massachusetts, down 0.7 percent, Virginia, down 0.5 percent, and the District of Columbia, down 0.2 percent.

Data for the Bureau of Justice Statistics report were drawn from the 1997 National Prisoner Statistics program and the 1997 Annual Survey of Jails.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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