Despite declining crime rates in its major cities, Tennessee's prison population grew by nearly 5 percent last year, outpacing all but three Southern states.
Only Mississippi, South Carolina and West Virginia had prison populations grow more than Tennessee's, according to a report by the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics. The inmate population in the South grew faster than in any other region.
The number of people serving time in state and federal correctional facilities in Tennessee jumped 4.7 percent last year to more than 25,000, the report says.
The state Department of Correction expects to meet the demand until at least 2008 by adding more than 2,000 beds to facilities across the state, spokeswoman Jennifer Johnson said. "We are right on target with what our population projections are," she said.
The report and experts attribute much of increase in Tennessee and across the nation to get-tough policies enacted during the 1980s and 1990s, such as mandatory drug sentences, "three-strikes-you're-out" laws for repeat offenders and "truth-in-sentencing laws" that restrict early releases.
But the rising numbers have some experts concerned and advocating other options.
Kenneth Venters, a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga criminal justice professor, said the way states use incarceration is "really overkill."
Expanding prisons only will add to the problem, Venters said, because a prison filled to capacity is cheaper to operate. "We keep on building the prisons, so we feel compelled to fill them," he said.
Johnson said the Department of Correction is adding 1,292 beds to the Southeastern Tennessee State Regional Correctional Facility in Bledsoe County and 838 beds to the Brushy Mountain Correctional Complex in Morgan County. The department also is housing two inmates to every cell at the Turney Center Industrial Complex in Hickman County.
Johnson said the department is reorganizing its upper management to focus more on rehabilitating inmates in an effort to help control the number of former inmates who re-enter the prison system.
She said Jim Cosby, now state director for the Tennessee Board of Probation and Parole, will join the department as the assistant commissioner for rehabilitative services, a newly created position.
Nationally, the prison population grew by 2.9 percent last year to almost 2.1 million inmates, according to the federal report. One out of every 75 men last year lived in prison or jail. There were 715 inmates for every 100,000 U.S. residents at midyear in 2003, up from 703 a year earlier.
In Tennessee, there were 435 inmates for every 100,000 residents. In Alabama, that figure was 612, the fifth-highest in the nation.
The U.S. inmate population in 2003 grew at its fastest pace in four years. The number of inmates increased 1.8 percent in state prisons, 7.1 percent in federal prisons and 3.9 percent in local jails, according to the report.