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US sees further drop in prison population

The entrance to the Rikers Island prison complex on May 17, 2011 in New York City
The entrance to the Rikers Island prison complex on May 17, 2011 in New York City.

The United States Thursday reported a decline in the overall number of prisoners in federal and state penitentiaries for the third year in a row.

The Department of Justice said the overall number of prisoners in state and federal institutions in 2012 fell by 1.7 percent, or 27,770 inmates, to a total 1,571,013 prisoners.

"This is the third consecutive year of a decline in the number of state prisoners, which represents a shift in the direction of incarceration practice in the states over the past 30 years," it said.

California led the decline with 15,035 fewer inmates, due in part to the diversion of "non-sex, non-violent offenders" to local jails to ease overcrowding in state prisons.

The federal prison population grew, the justice department said, but only by 0.7 percent or 1,453 inmates, a rate it called slower than the average 3.2 percent annual growth rate of the past decade.

The figures are based on data from the 47 states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Definitive statistics are expected by year's end.

The International Centre for Prison Studies at the University of Essex in Britain says the United States has the highest prison population rate in the world.

Its figure -- 716 per 100,000 at the end of 2011, based on US Census Bureau data -- takes in persons in all penal institutions, including pre-trial detainees.

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