Comparison of United States incarceration rate with other countries

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A map of incarceration rates by country[1]
Total United States incarceration by year

In 2016, the United States had the highest prison and jail population (2,121,600 in adult facilities in 2016), and the highest incarceration rate in the world (655 per 100,000 people in 2016).[1] According to the World Prison Population List (11th edition) there were around 10.35 million people in penal institutions worldwide in 2015.[2] The US had 2,173,800 prisoners in adult facilities in 2015.[3] That means the US held 21.0% of the world's prisoners in 2015, even though the US represented only around 4.4 percent of the world's population in 2015.[4][5] By the end of 2020, the U.S. prison and jail population had decreased to 1,675,400, with an incarceration rate of 505 per 100,000 people.[6] This left America with the second-largest prison population, behind China, and the sixth-highest incarceration rate.[1]

Comparing English-speaking developed countries;[1] the overall incarceration rate in the US is 639 per 100,000 population of all ages (as of 2018),[7] the incarceration rate of Canada is 104 per 100,000 (as of 2018),[8] England and Wales is 130 per 100,000 (as of 2021),[9] and Australia is 160 per 100,000 (as of 2020).[10] Comparing other developed countries, the rate of Spain is 122 per 100,000 (as of 2020),[11] France is 90 per 100,000 (as of 2020),[12] Germany is 69 per 100,000 (as of 2020),[13] Norway is 49 per 100,000 (as of 2020),[14] Netherlands is 63 per 100,000 (as of 2018),[15] and Japan is 38 per 100,000 (as of 2019).[16]

Comparing other countries with similar percentages of immigrants, Germany has a rate of 78 per 100,000 (as of 2017),[13] Italy is 96 per 100,000 (as of 2018),[17] and Saudi Arabia is 197 per 100,000 (as of 2017).[18] Comparing other countries with a zero tolerance policy for illegal drugs, the rate of Russia is 411 per 100,000 (as of 2018),[19] Kazakhstan is 194 per 100,000 (as of 2018),[20] Singapore is 201 per 100,000 (as of 2017),[21] and Sweden is 57 per 100,000 (as of 2016).[22]

The incarceration rate of the People's Republic of China varies depending on sources and measures. According to the World Prison Brief, the rate for only sentenced prisoners is 118 per 100,000 (as of 2015). The rate for prisoners including estimations for the number of pre-trial detainees and those in administrative detention is 164 per 100,000 (as of 2015).[23] In a 2010 interview 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,[24] but that period includes the mass incarcerations of the 1950s or the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and is not representative of China in 2010.

U.S. incarceration rate peaked in 2008[edit]

U.S. incarceration rate peaked in 2008. Prisoners per 100,000 population.[25][26]
Total US incarceration peaked in 2008. Total correctional population peaked in 2007.[26]
US incarceration and correctional population rates over time. The incarceration rate peaked in 2008.[3]
US correctional population (prison, jail, probation, parole).

Total US incarceration (prisons and jails) peaked in 2008. On January 1, 2008 more than 1 in 100 adults in the United States were in prison or jail.[27][28] Total correctional population (prison, jail, probation, parole) peaked in 2007.[26] If all prisoners are counted (including juvenile, territorial, ICE, Indian country, and military), then in 2008 the USA had around 24.7% of the world's 9.8 million prisoners.[29][30][25]

A 2008 article in The New York Times[31] said that "it is the length of sentences that truly distinguishes American prison policy. Indeed, the mere number of sentences imposed here would not place the United States at the top of the incarceration lists. If lists were compiled based on annual admissions to prison per capita, several European countries would outpace the United States. But American prison stays are much longer, so the total incarceration rate is higher."

More comparisons[edit]

In the United States, women make up more than one tenth of the whole prison population.[32] 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.[33]

In addition, the United States has significant racial disparities in rates of incarceration.[34] According to Michelle Alexander in a 2010 book, the United States "imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid".[35] 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.[36] In the Huffington Post piece "Mass Incarceration's Failure", attorney Antonio Moore states "The incarceration rate for young black men ages 20 to 39, is nearly 10,000 per 100,000. To give context, during the racial discrimination of apartheid in South Africa, the prison rate for black male South Africans, rose to 851 per 100,000."[37]

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.[35] 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 have a higher rate of committing inmates to prison annually, the fact that the United States keeps their prisoners longer causes the total incarceration 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.[31]

The US incarceration rate peaked in 2008 when about 1,000 in 100,000 U.S. adults were behind bars. That's 760 inmates per 100,000 U.S. residents of all ages.[28][26] This incarceration rate was similar to the average incarceration levels in the Soviet Union during the existence of the infamous Gulag system, when the Soviet Union's population reached 168 million, and 1.2 to 1.5 million people were in the Gulag prison camps and colonies (i.e. about 714 to 892 imprisoned per 100,000 USSR residents, according to numbers from Anne Applebaum and Steven Rosefielde).[38][39] Some of the latter Soviet Union's yearly incarceration rates from 1934 to 1953, however, likely were the world's historically highest for a modern age country.[40] In The New Yorker article The Caging of America (2012), Adam Gopnik writes: "Over all, there are now more people under 'correctional supervision' in America—more than six million—than were in the Gulag under Stalin at its height."[41]

Comparison to OECD countries[edit]

OECD incarceration rate by country. Data is from World Prison Brief.[1]

All but four US states (the exceptions are Rhode Island, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Minnesota) have a higher incarceration rate than Turkey, the nation with the second highest incarceration rate among OECD countries. See: List of U.S. states by incarceration and correctional supervision rate.

OECD incarceration rates by country.gif

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Highest to Lowest. World Prison Brief (WPB). Use dropdown menu to choose lists of countries by region, or the whole world. Use menu to select highest-to-lowest lists of prison population totals, prison population rates, percentage of pre-trial detainees / remand prisoners, percentage of female prisoners, percentage of foreign prisoners, and occupancy rate. Column headings in WPB tables can be clicked to reorder columns lowest to highest, or alphabetically. For detailed information for each country click on any country name in lists. See also the WPB main data page and click on the map links and/or the sidebar links to get to the region and country desired.
  2. ^ Walmsley, Roy (2 Feb 2016). World Prison Population List (11th edition) (PDF). From the Research & Publications page of the World Prison Brief website. From page 1 of the PDF: "The information is the latest available at the end of October 2015." And from page 2: "This report shows that more than 10.35 million people are held in penal institutions throughout the world, either as pre-trial detainees/remand prisoners or having been convicted and sentenced."
  3. ^ a b Correctional Populations in the United States, 2015. By Danielle Kaeble and Lauren Glaze, BJS Statisticians. Dec. 2016. Bureau of Justice Statistics. See PDF. Page 2 says: "At yearend 2015, an estimated 2,173,800 persons were either under the jurisdiction of state or federal prisons or in the custody of local jails in the United States". See also table 4 on page 4: "Rate of persons supervised by U.S. adult correctional systems, by correctional status, 2000 and 2005–2015".
  4. ^ Population Clock. U.S. Census Bureau. 321,032,786 people in the US on June 30, 2015.
  5. ^ The World Population Prospects: 2015 Revision. 29 July 2015 article. From United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. 7.3 billion people in 2015.
  6. ^ "United States of America | World Prison Brief". Retrieved 2023-01-08.
  7. ^ United States of America. World Prison Brief.
  8. ^ Canada. World Prison Brief.
  9. ^ United Kingdom: England & Wales. World Prison Brief.
  10. ^ Australia. World Prison Brief.
  11. ^ Spain. World Prison Brief.
  12. ^ France. World Prison Brief.
  13. ^ a b Germany. World Prison Brief.
  14. ^ Norway. World Prison Brief.
  15. ^ Netherlands. World Prison Brief.
  16. ^ Japan. World Prison Brief.
  17. ^ Italy. World Prison Brief.
  18. ^ Saudi Arabia. World Prison Brief.
  19. ^ Russia. World Prison Brief.
  20. ^ Kazakhstan. World Prison Brief.
  21. ^ Singapore. World Prison Brief.
  22. ^ Sweden. World Prison Brief.
  23. ^ China Archived 2019-09-24 at the Wayback Machine. World Prison Brief.
  24. ^ Wu, Harry (1 March 2010). "One on One". Radio Prague (Interview: audio). Interviewed by Chris Johnstone. Prague, Czech Republic: Český rozhlas 7. Retrieved 2011-04-14.
  25. ^ a b Walmsley, Roy (30 Jan 2009). World Prison Population List (8th Edition). From World Prison Population Lists. By World Prison Brief. "The information is the latest available in early December 2008. … Most figures relate to dates between the beginning of 2006 and the end of November 2008." According to the summary on page one there were 2.29 million U.S. inmates and 9.8 million inmates worldwide. The U.S. held 23.4% of the world's inmates. The U.S. total in this report is for December 31, 2007 (see page 3), and does not include inmates in juvenile detention facilities.
  26. ^ a b c d Correctional Populations in the United States, 2013 (NCJ 248479). Published December 2014 by U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). By Lauren E. Glaze and Danielle Kaeble, BJS statisticians. See PDF. See page 1 "highlights" section for the "1 in ..." numbers. See table 1 on page 2 for adult numbers. See table 2 on page 3 for a timeline of incarceration rates. See table 5 on page 6 for male and female numbers. See appendix table 5 on page 13, for "Estimated number of persons supervised by adult correctional systems, by correctional status, 2000–2013." See appendix table 2: "Inmates held in custody in state or federal prisons or in local jails, 2000 and 2012–2013".
  27. ^ One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008. February 28, 2008. The Pew Center on the States.
  28. ^ a b Liptak, Adam (28 Feb 2008). 1 in 100 U.S. Adults Behind Bars, New Study Says. The New York Times.
  29. ^ Prisoners in 2008 Archived 2011-07-16 at the Wayback Machine. (NCJ 228417). December 2009 report from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). By William J. Sabol, Ph.D. and Heather C. West, Ph.D., BJS Statisticians. Also, Matthew Cooper, BJS Intern. See PDF Archived 2011-07-16 at the Wayback Machine. Table 9 on page 8 has the number of inmates in state or federal prison facilities, local jails, U.S. territories, military facilities, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) owned and contracted facilities, jails in Indian country, and juvenile facilities (2006 Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement). See 2007 juvenile total here. Table 8 on page 8 has the incarceration rates for 2000, 2007, and 2008.
  30. ^ Sickmund, M., Sladky, T.J., Kang, W., & Puzzanchera, C.. "Easy Access to the Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement". Click "National Crosstabs" at the top, and then choose the census years. Click "Show table" to get the total number of juvenile inmates for those years. Or go here for all the years. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
  31. ^ a b Liptak, Adam (23 Apr 2008). Inmate Count in US Dwarfs Other Nations'. [1]. The New York Times.
  32. ^ Carlen, Pat (2004). Analysing Women's Imprisonment. Portland: Willan Publishing. p. 43.
  33. ^ Carlen, Pat (2004). Analysing Women's Imprisonment. Portland: Willan Publishing. p. 42.
  34. ^ 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)
  35. ^ a b Alexander, Michelle (2010). The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press, New York. See pages 7 and 86. ISBN 978-1-59558-643-8. Look or search inside.
  36. ^ Greenberg, Jon. Kristof: U.S. imprisons blacks at rates higher than South Africa during apartheid. Politifact.
  37. ^ Moore, Antonio (4 Aug 2015). Mass Incarceration's Failure: America's Bias in Arrest, Conviction and Sentencing. Huffington Post.
  38. ^ Rosefielde, Steven (2007). The Russian economy: from Lenin to Putin. By Steven Rosefielde. ISBN 978-1-4051-1337-3.
  39. ^ Applebaum, Anne (2003). Gulag: a history. By Anne Applebaum. ISBN 978-0-7679-0056-0.
  40. ^ Getty, J. Arch; Rittersporn, Gabor T.; Zemskov, Viktor N. "Victims of the Soviet Penal System in the Pre-war Years: A First Approach on the Basis of Archival Evidence". EText (archived). Archived from the original on 28 December 2008. Retrieved 28 December 2008.
  41. ^ Gopnik, Adam (30 January 2012). The Caging of America. The New Yorker.