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There have been a lot of hot button political issues in the United States in recent years. These stories dominate the news cycle and then make way for the next big story. But one topic in particular has been slowly bubbling just below the surface for many years: the rate of incarceration in the United States. 

Everyone from political candidates to celebrities like Kim Kardashian have taken up the incarceration rate in the United States as their personal pet cause. 

So, why has this become such a major issue for some, and what has happened to bring the discussion to this point?

Like many complex political and social issues, there is no one cause that anyone can point to the number of people who are currently incarcerated in the United States. Rather, this is a challenge that has been created over time as a result of a number of laws, social changes, and policy directives from government. Some may even wonder if this is even really a crisis at all. 

When comparing the US prison population vs the world, is there much of a difference to note?

Politicians from both parties have often quoted Bureau of Justice statistics that the United States, despite having only about 5% of the world’s population, is home to nearly a quarter of the world’s prisoners. Hillary Clinton mentioned this statistic several times in the run up to her presidential run. Republican Rand Paul has also made similar claims in the past. And, for the most part, these numbers are fairly accurate according to The Washington Post.

Clearly, the imprisonment rate in the United States is disproportionate to the total population. If it were to be assumed that people around the world commit crimes at a relatively similar rate, then it would stand to reason that the United States should only be home to about 5% of the world’s prison population. 

So why are crime rates - and the numbers - so out of line? And, more importantly, what can be done to change this?  Or, for that matter, does anything even need to be done?

This article is going to take a deeper look at incarceration rates by country to see where other countries rank, what could be contributing to such a high incarceration rate, and what other countries are doing differently than the United States to keep their prison and jail populations low.

Important statistics to consider

When looking simply at prison population totals by country, it is easy to see that the United States is not in good company. Just in terms of real numbers without accounting for per capita totals, the United States leads the list by a hefty margin with over 2 million people currently incarcerated. 

Next on the list is China with over 1.5 million people in prison. As the most populous country on the planet, it would be expected that China should be near the top of the list. 

However, it should also be noted that China is widely criticized for taking drastic steps including imprisoning journalists who go against the communist regime’s narrative, building detention camps for Muslimsdetaining Canadian citizens in the midst of a legal dispute between the countries governments, and arresting political dissidents at a rate that leads the world.

After China on the list of prisoner totals comes Russia. This is another country known for jailing journalists, arresting political dissidents, and even making laws against “gay propaganda.” Following Russia on this list are Brazil, India, and Mexico with their own unique challenges regarding human rights and incarceration.

Of course, prison population totals only tells a part of the story. It stands to reason that countries with higher populations will, in turn, have higher prison populations. Therefore, an incarceration rate per 100,000 people is a statistic often used to help analyze which counties are actually jailing people at a much higher rate than their peers. 

Even when sorting using this method, the United States still leads the world in incarceration rates with 737 people in prison per 100,000 citizens. Russia is second on the list with 615 and then there is a noticeable drop off with countries like Ukraine, South Africa, and Poland on the list.

Many people point to drug offenses and the War on Drugs, which was started by Richard Nixon, as a cause of the high mass incarceration rates in the United States. In fact, in the last 40 years, the prison population total in the United States has increased nearly 600%, while the overall population of the United States has only increased 51%. That is a drastic change that directly coincides with the beginning of the War on Drugs.

With the War on Drugs came many mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug-related crimes. And, according to the United States Sentencing Commission, mandatory minimum sentencing laws have had a significant impact on the size of the overall prison population in the United States. 

Many critics of mandatory minimum sentences believe that this policy unfairly imprisons non-violent drug offenders and fails to address the root cause of drug crime. In addition, it can also lead to a first-time offender being sentenced the same way that a repeat offender would be sentenced. 

With mandatory minimums, there is no room for creative sentencing that may help ensure offenders get the help they need to stay away from a life of crime.

Many also point to a racial disparity in prison populations to argue that there may be racial bias present when sentencing. For example, African Americans are jailed at a rate 5 times higher than whites and, despite only making up 32% of the population in the United States, African Americans and Hispanics make up 56% of the prison population total. 

This racial bias is partially confirmed by a former Nixon advisor, who said this in a 1994 interview:

“We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

By looking at the clear statistics showing the US prison population vs the world and considering the factors like the War on Drugs that may have contributed to this, people can begin to get a grasp on why the United States is home to such a disproportionately high number of prisoners. But these basic statistics do not tell the full story. There are other smaller factors that must also be looked at.

Recidivism rates in the United States

One basic way to judge whether a sentencing and prison system is working is the rates of recidivism. This shows how many people end up back in prison after being released for their first sentence. Essentially, it tells people whether the prison system is reforming people or if it is only continuing the cycle of crime and incarceration.

The rate of recidivism in the United States is 70% within 5 years. Simply put, 70% of freed inmates will be arrested again within 5 years. This is in stark contrast to Norway, which boasts the lowest recidivism rates in the world at just 20% within 5 years. 

What is the cause of this massive difference? Norway puts a heavy emphasis on rehabilitation. Inmates are given opportunities to train and learn new skills so that they can be better positioned for success when released. Prisoners have enclosed washrooms within their cells, excellent workout facilities, and on-site medical access. 

American prisons also claim to rehabilitate rather than punish but there are some policies like solitary confinement suggest there is still much work to be done. Prisoners in some states can be made to work on factory lines during their sentence for far less than minimum wage. In other states, some felons are unable to get back some basic rights like the ability to vote, even after they have served their time. These challenges can make it difficult to integrate back into society and, ultimately, may contribute to increased recidivism rates.

Crime begins early

There are some interesting juvenile incarceration statistics that may play a role in the significant incarceration rate in the United States. For starters, the United States has the most imprisoned minors of any country in the world with 60,000 in juvenile detention facilities and 95,000 in adult facilities. 

In addition, studies have shown that up to 57% of juvenile offenders will re-offend in adulthood. With the high rates of recidivism among adult offenders discussed above, the significant imprisonment of minors may be a starting point for many long-time offenders who are continuously in and out of the prison system throughout their lives.

Not all juvenile offenders may end up in prison facilities for minor crimes like petty vandalism. However, intervention is an important tool to ensure that young offenders have positive outcomes later in life. 

Studies have shown that treatments like mental health counseling can greatly improve future results for juvenile offenders and keep them out of the prison system. Unfortunately, these services are not always available or affordable for those who need them. As a result, important intervention opportunities may be missed and youth criminals may eventually graduate to more serious crimes throughout their teenage and adult years.

Prison system quality

The quality of a prison system can play a major role in recidivism outcomes, as mentioned above in the example comparing Norway and the United States. While the United States is not home to the worst prison systems in the world like those found in China, Russia, Thailand, and Venezuela, there is an opportunity for improvement.

One main criticism of the US prison system is the for-profit prisons. These are privately owned and operated prisons that are contracted by the government to house prisoners. In a for-profit prison system, there is an obvious risk of prison operators cutting corners to boost profits at the expense of inmate care. 

In fact, the United States is only one of a handful of countries that actually makes use of for-profit prisons. Some critics even go as far as to suggest that for-profit prisons have little incentive to rehabilitate prisoners as it would harm their business model.

Some policies in the US prison system are also being eliminated in other countries. For example, Canada has moved to eliminate solitary confinement in its prison system while the practice is still widely used in the United States. While solitary confinement isn’t physical torture like what can be found in the worst prison systems in the world, it can have long-term, negative mental health outcomes for prisoners even after they are out of prison.

Women in prison

Much like with the male prisoner population, when looking at female incarceration by country, the United States leads the world for number of women in prison with more than 200,000 women currently serving time. Once again, this only adds fuel to the fire when comparing US prison population vs the world. For context, China sits in second place with just over 100,000 women in prison despite their much larger population.

The consequences of putting women behind bars can be felt throughout the entire family. Since women are most often the main caregiver, their incarceration can lead to very negative outcomes for their children. Kids with parents in prison face a number of challenges including economic hardship, expulsion from school, psychological changes, and even turn to criminal behavior of their own. If the father is unable or unwilling to parent alone, the children can end up in the foster care system, which also increases the risk of criminal behavior and mental health issues.

Once women are released from prison, they may face challenges with finding secure employment and stable housing which makes raising children a challenge. Those that do not have children may still have to battle homelessness, poverty, and hunger. By imprisoning women at such a high rate, the United States may unintentionally be driving future generations toward a life of crime as well which only further worsens the already staggering incarceration rate in the country.

FAQs about U.S. prisons

Which country has the highest incarceration rate in the world?

The United States leads this category by a fairly wide margin. The incarceration rate in the United States is 737 inmates per 100,000 people. This exceeds countries like China, Russia, and Mexico which all have a dubious history with human rights. Despite only having about 5% of the world’s population, the United States is home to almost 25% of all prisoners in the world. Countries like China and India with much higher populations have both a lower incarceration rate and total prison population than the United States.

How does the prison population in America compare to other nations?

The United States far outpaces other countries for total prison population with over 2.1 million jail inmates. China is second on this list with just over 1.5 million people in prison. 

Russia is home to about 870,000 prisoners, Brazil has more than 370,000 prisoners, and India rounds out the top 5 with a little more than 330,000 prisoners. Despite some countries like China and Russia going so far as to imprison gay rights advocates and political dissidents, they still do not match the prisoner totals seen in the United States.

How many prisons are in the United States?

The United States prison system is made up of federal, state, and local facilities. Within that, there are women’s facilities, men’s facilities, and juvenile facilities that may all be subject to different reporting standards and timelines. 

According to recent information, there are 6,125 prisons in the United States including federal prisons, state prisons, local jails, juvenile correctional facilities, and Indian Country jails. This number does not include other facilities that may be relevant, including military prisons or immigration detention facilities.

How much does the United States spend on prisons each year?

It is widely estimated that the United States spends a total of $80 billion per year on public and private prisons. These numbers are a combination of federal, state, and local spending on prisons within their own jurisdictions. That figure has also been quoted by politicians including Bernie Sanders and former President Barack Obama. Some facilities may not be reflected in this number. 

For example, immigration detention facilities would not fall under a federal prison budget and would, instead, be part of the homeland security budget. Military prisons and prisons like Guantanamo Bay would also not appear in these figures, as they would be a part of the military budget. 

Jason
 

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