WASHINGTON – The growth of Maryland’s prison population dropped sharply last year, but still grew at almost three times the national average for state prisons, according to statistics released by the Justice Department this week.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics said state prison populations nationwide grew by 0.4 percent from July 1, 2000, to June 30, 2001, the slowest rate of growth in 28 years.
Maryland’s prison population grew 1.1 percent during the same period, rising to 23,970 inmates on June 30. Maryland officials said that, as of Friday, the state’s prisons had 23,730 inmates in a system designed to hold 15,500 prisoners.
The growth rate was down from 1.5 percent nationally during the previous 12-month period, and 2.8 percent for Maryland in the same period.
The figures include prisoners in custody and those being held outside prison facilities while under the legal authority of a prison system.
A spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services did not dispute the prison growth numbers — and was not particularly concerned by them.
“Every state will be up at times and down at times,” said Leonard A. Sipes Jr., the spokesman. “We don’t look at Justice data in terms of rates rising or dropping.”
Sipes said the higher-than-average rate of increase in Maryland’s prison population could be attributed to the state’s tough stance on crime.
“We’re putting more violent criminals in prison, and we’re keeping them longer,” he said.
Sipes said that Maryland state prisoners serve 66 months on average and that the number of “lifers,” with or without parole, increased 65 percent during the 1990s, to 2,129 inmates.
The report supported Sipes’ claim that Maryland inmates are being held longer. While the number of inmates released from state prisons increased nationally by 8.4 percent between 1998 and 2000, the number in Maryland fell 4.7 percent in the same period, from 10,492 inmates in 1998 to 10,004 in 2000.
The report said the rise in inmate releases was a major factor behind “the dramatic slowdown in the rate of growth in state prison populations.”
Maryland also had more state prisoners per capita than the national average, according to the report. It said 432 of every 100,000 Maryland residents were serving a state prison sentence of more than one year, compared to 426 per 100,000 nationally.
Sipes said the Maryland incarceration rate of 432 persons per 100,000 residents was “the traditional rate” for the state. He said it is the 17th- highest rate of incarceration in the nation, according to the most recent Justice Department statistics.
A spokesman for the Governors’ office of Crime Control and Prevention referred calls for comment on the prison statistics to Sipes. A spokesman for the Attorney General’s office did not return two phone calls.