Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) is chairman of the House Committee on Government Operations. Because of an editing error, his committee assignment was misidentified Saturday. (Published 1/8/91)

The United States now has the highest incarceration rate in the world as a result of stiffer sentencing over the past decade, a non-profit research and advocacy group said yesterday.

The Sentencing Project, a five-year-old organization that promotes alternatives to incarceration, noted that more than a 1 million people are behind bars in the United States, or an average of 426 inmates for every 100,000 residents. That is more than twice the number of U.S. prisoners in 1980, although the crime rate has declined slightly since then, the report said.

South Africa has the second highest imprisonment rate, with an average of 333 prisoners for every 100,000 residents. The Soviet Union, which recently has released a number of political prisoners, is third with 268 inmates per 100,000 residents, the report said.

An increasing percentage of the U.S. prison population is made up of blacks, many of them convicted of drug offenses, the report said. In 1984, blacks accounted for 30 percent of all drug arrests; in 1988, they accounted for 38 percent, according to the report.

"If we continue to pursue the policies of the 1980s in the 1990s, we can expect that black males may truly become the 'endangered species' that many have predicted," the report said.

The organization recommended the establishment of a national commission to study ways to reduce crime and imprisonment; more emphasis on drug treatment and rehabilitation programs; the repeal of mandatory minimum sentencing laws and more "community policing" programs that stress ties between officers and neighborhoods.

"Had the punitive policies of the past decade resulted in dramatically reduced crime rates, one could argue that their great expense was partially justified by the results," the report said. "But as the 1990s begin, we are faced with the same problems as in 1980, only greater in degree -- overcrowded prisons, high rates of crime, a major national drug problem. . . . "

Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), chairman of the Judiciary subcommittee on criminal justice, whose staff helped with the report, released a statement yesterday saying, "We can build all the jails we think we need and slam down the doors on thousands of people, but it won't make a bit of difference until we address the fundamental causes of crime."

America's ballooning prison population has been frequently noted, but few comparisons have been drawn with other countries since a 1979 report by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. That study said the United States was third in the industrialized world in its rate of imprisonment, behind the Soviet Union and South Africa.

The next decade brought major prison expansion programs in many states and in the federal system, a trend that now appears to be abating, according to J. Michael Quinlan, director of the federal Bureau of Prisons. California voters, for instance, in November defeated a $450 million prison construction bond issue after passing a number of similiar bond issues.

While adding prison cells, states and the federal government adopted stiffer criminal justice policies, mandating prison sentences for some crimes and tightening parole eligiblity criteria. As a result, overcrowding remains a critical issue, forcing some states such as Florida and numerous localities into controversial early release programs.

In Philadelphia, for instance, a federal judge this week approved a plan requiring the release of 175 inmates a week from city-operated prisons to relieve overcrowding.

Comparing crime rates of countries is difficult because they define and report on crime differently, The Sentencing Project said, but "there is little question that the United States has a high crime rate." A 1988 Justice Department study found the United States led Canada and European countries in rates of murder, rape, robbery, larceny and car theft.

Since 1980, however, the overall crime rate has declined by 3.5 percent, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports. But the rate of violent crime rose, from 596 crimes per 100,000 residents in 1980 to 663 crimes per 100,000 residents in 1989.

"It is not surprising that harsher criminal justice policies have had little impact on crime," the Sentencing Project's report said, citing findings by criminologists that any deterrent effect is tied to the certainty of punishment, not the severity of it.