Figures released yesterday by the Justice Department show that Pennsylvania's prison population grew at a much higher rate than any other state's from 2007 to 2008.

Pennsylvania's overall inmate count in state and federal facilities rose by 9.1 percent, compared to a 4.9 percent rise in second-place Arizona.

For male prisoners, Pennsylvania's 8.5 percent rise was also first, as was the total increase of 4,178 prisoners for both sexes.

Only Montana's 20.6 percent increase in female prisoners exceeded Pennsylvania's 19.9 percent rise.

Nationwide, the number of prisoners increased by 0.8 percent, the smallest hike in the growth rate in eight years, according to "Prisoners in 2008," by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The slowing trend was largely due to lawmakers working to save money, said Ram Cnaan, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Social Policy and Practice.

"It's not ideological, it's pragmatic," said Cnaan. "This is the first time that we have alliances on the right and left on this issue, and it's the money that has forced the issue."

Twenty states showed declines, including New Jersey, whose drop of 3.3 percent, tying it with Kentucky and trailing only New York's 3.6 percent reduction.

The report offers little explanation for why Pennsylvania's inmate population grew faster than other states, except to point out that admissions were down only 1 percent, while releases dropped 4.4 percent.

Admissions also grew by 6 percent from 2000 to 2007, outpacing the 4.8 rise in releases.

In absolute numbers, Pennsylvania ranks behind six other states.

As of Dec. 31, 2008, California had 173,670 prisoners, edging out Texas' 172,506. Each of those states had more than No. 3 Florida's 102,388 and No. 4 New York's 60,347 combined.

Georgia and Ohio also had more than Pennsylvania's 50,147.

The Keystone State's gender breakdown was 47,193 men and 2,954 women.

New Jersey's state and federal prison population at the end of 2008 was 25,953.

The report is viewable online at www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/p08.pdf.

For more on the report, go to www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs.

Contact staff writer Peter Mucha at 215-854-4342 or pmucha@phillynews.com.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.