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Prisoners: Characteristics of U.S. Inmate Populations

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley has a JD degree and is an attorney. She has extensive experience as a prosecutor and legal writer, and she has taught and written various law courses.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics is a crime database for prison inmates in the United States. Discover the statistics on U.S. inmates such as prison inmate population, inmate age, inmate gender, and race. Updated: 10/27/2021

Bureau of Justice Statistics

When you think of a typical prison inmate, what do you envision? Do you see an older person or a younger person? Male or female? Do you picture a certain race or ethnicity? Though all sorts of people are convicted of crimes and sent to serve time in prison, the truth is that there are certain groups who make up a larger portion of the inmate population than others. We know this because our government keeps track.

The United States Bureau of Justice Statistics, or BJS, is a federal government agency that collects, analyzes and publishes data relating to crime in the United States. The BJS is part of the U.S. Department of Justice. It was established in 1979.

Since that time, the BJS has actively gathered and distributed information on crime, criminal offenders, victims of crime and the operation of justice systems. Federal, state and local policymakers use the statistics in order to fight crime and ensure that the justice system works efficiently and fairly. Some of the BJS information relates to prison inmates. The BJS collects information regarding the characteristics of U.S. prison inmates, including age, gender and race.

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  • 1:34 Inmate Population
  • 3:36 Inmate Age
  • 4:58 Inmate Gender
  • 6:16 Inmate Race
  • 9:09 Lesson Summary
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Inmate Population

Let's start by looking at some general data regarding the U.S. prison population. At the end of 2013, U.S. state and federal prisons held over 1.5 million inmates. This marked an increase of approximately 4,000 inmates over the population of 2012.

However, the prison inmate population didn't increase across the board. The state prison population increased, while the federal prison population actually decreased. It was an unusual year. This marked the first state inmate increase since 2009 and the first federal inmate decrease since 1980.

As a quick reminder, state prisons hold inmates who have been convicted of state crimes, such as assault, burglary or possession of drugs. Federal prisons hold inmates who have been convicted of federal crimes, such as identity theft, tax evasion or drug trafficking.

The type of offense dictates the details of the inmate's prison sentence, such as the length of the sentence and where the sentence is served. Looking at 2012 data, 16% of state inmates and 51% of federal inmates were serving time for drug offenses. On the other hand, 54% of state inmates and just 7% of federal inmates were serving time for violent crimes, which are crimes in which the offender uses or threatens to use force against the victim. Violent crimes include murder, manslaughter, rape, robbery and assault.

So, generally speaking, most state inmates are violent offenders, and most federal inmates are drug offenders.

Inmate Age

Now let's take a look at some of the data relating to prison inmates' age. Again, we're looking at BJS data from the end of 2013.

Most prison inmates are younger than 40. In fact, 58% of male inmates and 61% of female inmates were 39 years of age or younger. Only 9% were age 55 or older. Though prison inmates tend to be young, most offenders age 17 or younger serve time in juvenile facilities.

However, through a process known as adult certification, juvenile courts can waive their jurisdiction over a young offender and that offender can be certified to stand trial as an adult in criminal court. Most states allow certification for 16-year-olds, though many states allow certification for juveniles as young as 13. A few states allow certification for juveniles of all ages to be used in the most severe crimes, such as murder.

At the end of 2013, less than 0.1% of the adult prison inmate population was age 17 or younger.

Inmate Gender

Now let's take a look at data relating to prison inmates' gender.

The overwhelming majority of prison inmates are male. Remember, at the end of 2013, BJS statistics showed that state and federal prisons held over 1.5 million inmates. Of those, only around 116,000 were female inmates. That's less than 0.08%.

However, the 2013 female prison inmate population actually rose by 3%. Notably, in recent years, the number of female prison inmates has increased at nearly double the rate of male inmates. In the 20-year span between 1991 and 2011, the number of state female prison inmates serving time for newly committed violent offenses increased by 83%.

Of the females serving time in prison, most are white. Just less than 50% of the 2013 female prison inmate population was white, while 22% was black.

Inmate Race

Those statistics aren't reflective of the male prison population. Black men make up around 40% of the male prison inmate population.

However, when reviewing these statistics, it's important to note that there are fewer overall black people in the United States than there are white people. For that reason, the incarceration rates for blacks are actually much higher than for whites. An incarceration rate represents the number of prisoners per 100,000 people in that specific population group. Incarceration rates are based on representative populations.

Using incarceration rates from 2012, we know that black males are six times more likely to serve time in prison than white males. Hispanic males are 2.5 times more likely to serve time in prison than white males.

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