State prison inmates are now older, whiter and more violent

Feb 21, 2011

The population of Washington state prison inmates has become whiter, older and more violent in the past decade. That's according to an Associated Press review of Department of Corrections records.

The majority of the inmates in Washington prisons are being held for violent crimes like murder, rape and assault. Figures provided by the state Department of Corrections found that last year there were 11,835 inmates (69 percent) serving time for violent crimes, and 5,240 (30 percent) serving time for drugs, property crimes or the category of "other."

Nationally, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that 52.4 percent of state prison inmates were doing time for violent crimes in 2008, the latest year available.

And while running the prison system eats up 5 percent of the state budget, there appear to be few places that funding can be cut without resorting to releasing inmates early, as some states have done.

"The main way to save money is to close a facility and lay off staff," said Tom McBride, a spokesman for the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, whose members are concerned the state is running out of prison beds. "When you look at our prison population, it's hard to find anybody who doesn't deserve to be there."

Prison reforms began changing inmate snapshot

Indeed, reforms started in the 1980's have dramatically changed the prison system's population. While Washington has a relatively small prison population, about 17,000 for a state of 6.6 million people, the percentage of inmates serving time for violent crimes is higher than the national average.

Nationally, the Bureau of Justice Statistics said 35.5 percent of all state prison inmates were white in 2008. The racial makeup of a state's prison population depends largely on the racial distribution of the state's population, said Paige Harrison, a statistician for the bureau.

Inmates are older

The inmate population is getting older, which is the result both of the aging baby boomer population and tough-on-crime laws than mandated longer sentences, McBride said.

In Washington, the average age of an inmate was 37.6 years for men and 36.6 years for women in 2010. That was up from 34.9 years for men and 34.4 years for women in 2000.