United States incarceration rate

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A map of U.S. states by incarceration rate under state and federal jurisdiction (but excluding jail inmates) per 100,000 population in 2008.[dated info][1]

In October 2013, the incarceration rate of the United States of America was the highest in the world, at 716 per 100,000 of the national population. While the United States represents about 4.4 percent of the world's population, it houses around 22 percent of the world's prisoners.[2] Imprisonment of America's 2.3 million prisoners, costing $24,000 per inmate per year, and $5.1 billion in new prison construction, consumes $60.3 billion in budget expenditures.

As of 2014 the high incarceration rates have started to modestly decline, although still remain the highest in the world.[3]

Prison population[edit]

Total incarceration in the United States by year

The United States has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world, at 754 per 100,000 (as of 2009).[4] As of December 31, 2010, the International Centre for Prison Studies (ICPS) at King's College London estimated 2,266,832 prisoners from a total population of 310.64 million as of this date (730 per 100,000 in 2010).[5]

This number comprises local jails with a nominal capacity of 866,782 inmates occupied at 86.4% (June 6, 2010), state prisons with a nominal capacity of approximately 1,140,500 occupied at approximately 115% (December 31, 2010), and federal prisons with a nominal capacity of 126,863 occupied at 136.0% (December 31, 2010). Of this number, 21.5% are pretrial detainees (December 31, 2010), 8.7% are female prisoners (December 31, 2010), 0.4% are juveniles (June 6, 2009), and 5.9% are foreign prisoners (June 30, 2007).[5]

The imprisonment rate varies widely by state; Louisiana surpasses this by about 100%, but Maine incarcerates at about a fifth this rate. A report released 28 February 2008, indicates that more than 1 in 100 adults in the United States are in prison.[6] The United States has less than 5% of the world's population[7] and 24% of the world's prison population.[8][dead link]

According to a US Department of Justice report published in 2006, over 7.2 million people were at that time in prison, on probation, or on parole (released from prison with restrictions). That means roughly 1 in every 32 Americans are held by the justice system.[9][10]


A graph of the incarceration rate under state and federal jurisdiction per 100,000 population 1925-2008 (omits local jail inmates). The male incarceration rate (top line) is 15 times the female rate (bottom line).

The Bureau of Justice Statistics has released a study which finds that, despite the total number of prisoners incarcerated for drug-related offenses increasing by 57,000 between 1997 and 2004, the proportion of drug offenders to total prisoners in State prison populations stayed steady at 21%. The percentage of Federal prisoners serving time for drug offenses declined from 63% in 1997 to 55% in that same period.[11] In the twenty-five years since the passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, the United States penal population rose from around 300,000 to more than two million.[12] Between 1986 and 1991, African-American women's incarceration in state prisons for drug offenses increased by 828 percent.[13]

In 2009, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that U.S. State prison population growth rate had fallen to its lowest since 2006, but it still had a 0.2% growth-rate compared to the total U.S. prison population.[14] In California, the US State Prison population fell during 2009 for first time in 38 years.[15]

When looking at specific populations within the criminal justice system the growth rates are vastly different. In 1977, there were just slightly more than eleven thousand incarcerated women. By 2004, the number of women under state or federal prison had increased by 757 percent, to more than 111,000, and the percentage of women in prison has increased every year, at roughly double the rate of men, since 2000.[16] The rate of incarcerated women has expanded at about 4.6% annually between 1995 and 2005 with women now accounting for 7% of the population in state and federal prisons.

Comparison with other countries[edit]

The stats source is the World Prison Population List. 8th edition. Prisoners per 100,000 population.[8][17]

Comparing other English-speaking developed countries, the incarceration rate of Canada is 117 per 100,000 (as of 2008), England and Wales is 154 per 100,000 (as of 2011), and Australia is 133 per 100,000 (as of 2010). Comparing other developed countries, the rate of Spain is 159 per 100,000 (as of 2011), Greece is 102 per 100,000 (as of 2009), and Japan is 59 per 100,000 (as of 2009).[4]

Comparing other countries with similar percentages of immigrants, Germany has a rate of 87 per 100,000 (as of 2012), Italy has a rate of 113 per 100,000 (as of 2010), and Saudi Arabia has a rate of 178 per 100,000 (as of 2009).[4] Comparing other countries with a zero tolerance policy for illegal drugs, the rate of Russia is 577 per 100,000, the rate of Kazakhstan is 400 per 100,000, the rate of Singapore is 273 per 100,000 and the rate of Sweden is 78 per 100,000.[4]

The incarceration rate of the People's Republic of China varies depending on sources and measures. According to the ICPS, the rate for only sentenced prisoners is 120 per 100,000 (as of 2009) and the rate for prisoners including those in administrative detention and pre-trial detainees is 186 per 100,000 (as of 2009).[4] Su Jiang assessed the incarceration rate for all forms of imprisonment in China at 218 prisoners per 100,000 population.[18] The total number of prisoners held, 1.6 million, is second to that of the United States despite its population being over four times larger.[19] Harry Wu, a U.S.-based human rights activist and ex-Chinese labor camp prisoner, estimates that "in the last 60 years, more than 40–50 million people" were in Chinese labor camps.[20]

In the United States, women make up more than one tenth of the whole prison population.[21] In most countries, the proportion of female inmates to the larger population is closer to one in twenty. Australia is the exception where the rate of female imprisonment increased from 9.2 percent in 1991 to 15.3 percent in 1999.[22][dated info]

In addition, the United States has very abnormal statistics when observing the racial dimension of mass incarceration.[23] According to Michelle Alexander, the United States "imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid".[24] The black imprisonment rate of South Africa could not have come close to today’s American rate simply due to limited room. Notably, there’s something of an international theme in countries comparing themselves to apartheid South Africa. There were instances where Australian journalists were drawing the same contrast relative to rates of imprisonment in their country.[25]


Further information: Crime in the United States
Homicide convictions by race, 1976-2005. [1]
Correctional populations in the United States 1980-2013.
2009. Percent of adult males incarcerated by race and ethnicity. [26]

Increased sentencing laws[edit]

Further information: Three-strikes law

A major contributor to the high incarceration rates is the length of the prison sentences in the United States. One of the criticisms of the United States system is that it has much longer sentences than any other part of the world. The typical mandatory sentence for a first-time drug offense in federal court is five or ten years, compared to other developed countries around the world where a first time offense would warrant at most 6 months in jail.[27] Mandatory sentencing prohibits judges from using their discretion and forces them to place longer sentences on nonviolent offenses than they normally would do.

Even though there are other countries that commit more inmates to prison annually, the fact that the United States keeps their prisoners longer causes the total rate to become higher. To give an example, the average burglary sentence in the United States is 16 months, compared to 5 months in Canada and 7 months in England.[19]

Looking at reasons for imprisonment will further clarify why the incarceration rate and length of sentences are so high. The practice of imposing longer prison sentences on repeat offenders is common in many countries but the three-strikes laws in the U.S. with mandatory 25 year imprisonment — implemented in many states in the 1990s — are statutes enacted by state governments in the United States which mandate state courts to impose harsher sentences on habitual offenders who are previously convicted of two prior serious criminal offenses and then commit a third.

Drug sentencing laws[edit]

The "War on Drugs" is a policy that was initiated by Richard Nixon with the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 and vigorously pursued by Ronald Reagan.[28] By 2010, drug offenders in federal prison had increased to 500,000 per year, up from 41,000 in 1985. Drug related charges accounted for more than half the rise in state prisoners. 31 million people have been arrested on drug related charges, approximately 1 in 10 Americans.[29]

After the passage of Reagan's Anti-Drug Abuse Act in 1986, incarceration for non-violent offenses dramatically increased. The Act imposed the same five-year mandatory sentence on users of crack as on those possessing 100 times as much powder cocaine.[28][30] This had a disproportionate effect on low-level street dealers and users of crack, who were more commonly poor blacks, Latinos, the young, and women.[31]

Courts were given more discretion in sentencing by the Kimbrough v. United States (2007) decision, and the disparity was decreased to 18:1 by the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.[32] As of 2006, 49.3% of state prisoners, or 656,000 individuals, were incarcerated for non-violent crimes. As of 2008, 90.7% of federal prisoners, or 165,457 individuals, were incarcerated for non-violent offenses.[33]

By 2003, 58% of all women in federal prison were convicted of drug offenses.[34] Women of color are disproportionately affected by the War on Drugs. African American women's incarceration rates for all crimes, largely driven by drug convictions, have increased by 800% since 1986, compared to an increase of 400% for women of other races.[35]

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, "Even when women have minimal or no involvement in the drug trade, they are increasingly caught in the ever-widening net cast by current drug laws, through provisions of the criminal law such as those involving conspiracy, accomplice liability, and constructive possession that expand criminal liability to reach partners, relatives and bystanders."[36]

These new policies also disproportionately affect African-American women. According to Dorothy E. Roberts, the explanation is that poor women, who are disproportionately black, are more likely to be placed under constant supervision by the State in order to receive social services.[37] They are then more likely to be caught by officials who are instructed to look specifically for drug offenses. Roberts argues that the criminal justice system's creation of new crimes has a direct effect on the number of women, especially black women, who then become incarcerated.

Prison privatization[edit]

In the 1980s, the rising number of people incarcerated as a result of the War on Drugs and the wave of privatization that occurred under the Reagan Administration saw the emergence of the for-profit prison industry. Prior to the 1980s, private prisons did not exist in the US.[38][39][40]

In a 2011 report by the ACLU, it is claimed that the rise of the for-profit prison industry is a "major contributor" to mass incarceration, along with bloated state budgets.[41] Louisiana, for example, has the highest rate of incarceration in the world with the majority of its prisoners being housed in privatized, for-profit facilities. Such institutions could face bankruptcy without a steady influx of prisoners.[42] A 2013 Bloomberg report states that in the past decade the number of inmates in for-profit prisons throughout the U.S. rose 44 percent.[43]

Corporations who operate prisons, such as the Corrections Corporation of America and The GEO Group, spend significant amounts of money lobbying the federal government along with state governments.[41] The two aforementioned companies, the largest in the industry, have been contributors to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which lobbies for policies that would increase incarceration, such as three-strike laws and “truth-in-sentencing” legislation.[44][45][46][47] Prison companies also sign contracts with states that guarantee at least 90 percent of prison beds be filled. If these "lockup quotas" aren't met, the state must reimburse the prison company for the unused beds. Prison companies use the profits to expand and put pressure on lawmakers to incarcerate a certain number of people.[48][49] This influence on the government by the private prison industry has been referred to as the Prison–industrial complex.[46]

The industry is well aware of what reduced crime rates could mean to their bottom line. This from the CCA's SEC report in 2010:

"Our growth … depends on a number of factors we cannot control, including crime rates …[R]eductions in crime rates … could lead to reductions in arrests, convictions and sentences requiring incarceration at correctional facilities."[41]

Editorial policies of major media[edit]

A substantial body of research claims that incarceration rates are primarily a function of media editorial policies, largely unrelated to the actual crime rate. Constructing Crime: Perspectives on Making News and Social Problems is a book collecting together papers on this theme.[50] These researchers say that the jump in incarceration rate from 0.1% to 0.5% of the United States population from 1975 to 2000 (documented in the figure above based on the National Crime Victimization Survey) was driven by changes in the editorial policies of the mainstream commercial media and is unrelated to any actual changes in crime. Media consolidation reduced competition on content. This allowed media company executives to maintain substantially the same audience while slashing budgets for investigative journalism and filling the space from the police blotter. This tended to increase and stabilize advertising revenue. It's safer, easier and cheaper to write about crimes committed by poor people than the wealthy. Poor people can be libeled with impunity, but major advertisers can materially impact the profitability of a commercial media organization by reducing their purchases of advertising space with that organization.

News media thrive on feeding frenzies, because they tend to reduce production costs while simultaneously building an audience interested in the latest development in a particular story. It takes a long time for a reporter to learn enough to write intelligently about a specific issue. Once a reporter has achieved that level of knowledge, it's easier to write subsequent stories. However, major advertisers have been known to spend their advertising budgets through different channels when they don't like the editorial policies. Therefore, a media feeding frenzy focusing on an issue of concern to an advertiser may reduce revenue and profits.[51]

Sacco described how "competing news organizations responded to each other's coverage [while] the police, in their role as gatekeepers of crime news, reacted to the increased media interest by making available more stories that reflected and reinforced" a particular theme. "[T]he dynamics of competitive journalism created a media feeding frenzy that found news workers 'snatching at shocking numbers' and 'smothering reports of stable or decreasing use under more ominous headlines.'"[52]

The reasons cited above for increased incarcerations (US racial demographics, Increased sentencing laws, and Drug sentencing laws) have been described as consequences of the shift in editorial policies of the mainstream media.

See also[edit]

External Links[edit]


McChesney, Robert W. (2004). The Problem of the Media: U.S. Communications Politics in the 21st Century. Monthly Review Press. ISBN 1-58367-105-6. 

Potter, Gary W.; Kappeler, Victor E., eds. (1998). Constructing Crime: Perspectives on Making News and Social Problems. Waveland press. ISBN 0-88133-984-9. 


  1. ^ United States Bureau of Justice Statistics (December 2009). "Prisoners in 2008". United States Department of Justice. Retrieved 2010-04-03. 
    (Cf. the international map, which does include jails.)
  2. ^ Roy Walmsley (November 21, 2013). World Prison Population List (tenth edition). International Centre for Prison Studies. Retrieved July 11, 2014.
  3. ^ Mark Cowling (May 29, 2014). High US incarceration rate begins to decline. Florence Reminder & Blade-Tribune. Retrieved June 15, 2014.
  4. ^ a b c d e "Lauren E. Glaze and Errin J. Herberman, Ph.D., Correctional Population in the United States, 2012, Bureau of Justice Statistics (December 2013) Rates". 
  5. ^ a b "World Prison Brief: Country - United States of America". International Centre for Prison Studies. 
  6. ^ "One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008". The Pew Center on the States. 28 February 2008. 
  7. ^ "US & World Population Clock". U.S. Census Bureau. 
  8. ^ a b World Prison Population List. 8th edition. By Roy Walmsley. Published in 2009. International Centre for Prison Studies. School of Law, King's College London.
  9. ^ Probation and Parole in the United States, 2006. By Lauren E. Glaze and Thomas P. Bonczar. U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), US Department of Justice.
  10. ^ BJS. Correctional Population Trends Chart.[dead link]
  11. ^ Christopher J. Mumola: Drug Use and Dependence, State and Federal Prisoners, 2004, U.S. Department of Justice, October 2006, NCJ 213530
  12. ^ Alexander, Michelle (2010). The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press. p. 6. 
  13. ^ Golden, Renny (2005). War on the Family: Mothers in Prison and the Families They Leave Behind. New York: Taylor and Friends. p. 46. 
  14. ^ "US DOJ Data Brief: Prisoners at Yearend 2009–Advance Counts". 
  15. ^ Martelle, Scott (2010), US State Prison Population Falls for First Time in 38 Years, AOL 
  16. ^ Talvi, Silja J.A (2007). Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S Prison System. California: Seal Press. p. 3. 
  17. ^ Human Development Report 2007/2008 (HDR 2007/2008). For prison population per 100,000 people see Table 27 on page 322 of the full report. UNDP (United Nations Development Programme), using data from the World Prison Population List, 7th edition. HDR 2009 does not contain a prison population table.
  18. ^ Jiang, Su. "Measuring Prison Population in China: A Preliminary Observation" Paper presented at the annual meeting of The Law and Society Association, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, 27 May 2008
  19. ^ a b Liptak, Adam (2008-04-23). "Inmate Count in U.S. Dwarfs Other Nations'". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-05-26. 
  20. ^ Wu, Harry (1 March 2010). One on One (audio). Interview with Chris Johnstone. Radio Prague. Český rozhlas 7. Prague, Czech Republic. Retrieved 2011-04-14. 
  21. ^ Carlen, Pat (2004). Analysing Women's Imprisonment. Portland: Willan Publishing. p. 43. 
  22. ^ Carlen, Pat (2004). Analysing Women's Imprisonment. Portland: Willan Publishing. p. 42. 
  23. ^ Rehavi and Starr (2012) "Racial Disparity in Federal Criminal Charging and Its Sentencing Consequences" Working Paper Series, no. 12-002 (Univ. of Michigan Law & Economics, Empirical Legal Studies Center)
  24. ^ Alexander, Michelle (2010). The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press. p. 7. 
  25. ^ Greenberg, Jon. "Kristof: U.S. imprisons blacks at rates higher than South Africa during apartheid". Politifact. 
  26. ^ Prison Inmates at Midyear 2009 - Statistical Tables (NCJ 230113). U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. The rates are for adult males, and are from Tables 18 and 19 of the PDF file. Rates per 100,000 were converted to percentages.
  27. ^ Alexander, Michelle (2010). The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press. p. 86. 
  28. ^ a b Alexander, Michelle (2010). The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindess. New York: The New Press. p. 52. 
  29. ^ Alexander, Michelle (2010). The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press. p. 60. 
  30. ^ Lyons, John. "War on the Family: Mothers in Prison and the Children They Leave Behind". DVD. Peace Productions. 
  31. ^ Golden, Renny (2005). War on the Family: Mothers in Prison and the Families They Leave Behind. New York: Routledge. p. 45. 
  32. ^ "Fair Sentencing Act of 2010", Families Against Mandatory Minimums, famm.org. Retrieved September 30, 2010.
  33. ^ "Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) - Prisoners in 2008". Bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov. Retrieved 2012-01-31. 
  34. ^ Bureau of Justice Statistics. Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics Online (30th ed.). 2002. Cited in "Words From Prison - Did You Know...?", American Civil Liberties Union, June 12, 2006.
  35. ^ Marc Mauer, Cathy Potler & Richard Wolf, Gender and Justice: Women, Drugs, and Sentencing Policy, The Sentencing Project. November 1997. Cited in "Words From Prison - Did You Know...?", American Civil Liberties Union, June 12, 2006 and "Caught in the Net: Impact of Drug Policies on Women and Families". American Civil Liberties Union. Retrieved 15 April 2011. 
  36. ^ "Words From Prison - Did You Know...?", American Civil Liberties Union, June 12, 2006.
  37. ^ Roberts, Dorothy (1997). Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty. New York: Vintage Books. p. 172. 
  38. ^ Khalek, Rania. How private prisons game the system. Salon.com. Dec 1, 2011.
  39. ^ Harcourt, Bernard (2012). The Illusion of Free Markets: Punishment and the Myth of Natural Order. Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674066162 p. 235
  40. ^ Selman, Donna and Paul Leighton (2010). Punishment for Sale: Private Prisons, Big Business, and the Incarceration Binge. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. ISBN 1442201738 p. xi
  41. ^ a b c Shapiro, David. "Banking on Bondage: Private Prisons and Mass Incarceration". American Civil Liberties Union. Retrieved 31 March 2013. 
  42. ^ Chang, Cindy (29 May 2012). "Louisiana is the world's prison capital". The Times-Picayune. Retrieved 4 April 2013. 
  43. ^ Margaret Newkirk & William Selway (12 July 2013). "Gangs Ruled Prison as For-Profit Model Put Blood on Floor." Bloomberg. Retrieved 16 July 2013.
  44. ^ Elk, Mike and Sloan, Bob (2011). The Hidden History of ALEC and Prison Labor. The Nation.
  45. ^ Prison Privatization and the Use of Incarceration. The Sentencing Project, September 2004.[dead link]
  46. ^ a b Whitehead, John (April 10, 2012). "Jailing Americans for Profit: The Rise of the Prison Industrial Complex". The Rutherford Institute. Retrieved April 2, 2013. 
  47. ^ Sullivan, Laura (2010). Prison Economics Help Drive Ariz. Immigration Law. National Public Radio.
  48. ^ Katy Hall and Jan Diehm (19 September 2013). One Disturbing Reason For Our Exploding Prison Population (INFOGRAPHIC). The Huffington Post Retrieved 20 September 2013.
  49. ^ CRIMINAL: How Lockup Quotas and "Low-Crime Taxes" Guarantee Profits for Private Prison Corporations. In the Public Interest. Retrieved 20 September 2013.
  50. ^ Potter and Kapeller (1998)
  51. ^ McCheney (2004, p. 81) wrote, "A five-year study of investigative journalism on TV news completed in 2002 determined that investigative journalism has all but disappeared from the nation's commercial airwaves."
  52. ^ Sacco, Vincent F. (May 1995), "Media Constructions of Crime", Annals of the American Academy of Political & Social Sciences 539: 141–154 , reprinted as chapter 2 of Potter and Kapeller (1998, pp. 37-51, esp. p. 42)