The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and it's still climbing.
Since 1980, the United States population has increased by 43 percent.
But as this GIF shows, the U.S. prison population has increased by 400 percent.
— Peter K. Enns (@pete_enns) October 19, 2017
That figure is from Peter Enns’ book Incarceration Nation (2016). Not coincidentally, the sharp increase in the U.S. incarceration rate correlates well with the ramping up of the war on drugs during the 1980s, which continues to this day.
Almost half of all prisoners in state prisons are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses, such as marijuana and other drug possession. Even between 2000 and 2010, the number of people incarcerated for non-violent drug-related crimes increased by more than 20,000.
Incarceration rates are disproportionate when it comes to people of color. Despite a 2011 study that revealed that white youths are more likely to abuse drugs (nine percent of whites are likely to have a drug problem, compared to five percent of black youths), blacks are 10 times more likely to be arrested for drug-related crimes.
While most politicians feel that incarceration is a solution to the drug problem, studies show that it often has the opposite effect. The Hamilton Project, a group within the Brookings Institute, published a study on incarceration and came to the conclusion that it doesn’t solve the problem.
“When the incarceration rate is high, the marginal crime reduction gains from further increases tend to be lower,” the study found, ” Because the offender on the margin between incarceration and an alternative sanction tends to be less serious. In other words, the crime-fighting benefits of incarceration diminish with the scale of the prison population.”
As most nations show a decline in general incarceration rates since the late 1990s, the rate in the U.S. has risen rapidly despite the fact that crime rates overall in the U.S. have drastically decreased.
Holly Harris of the Council on Foreign Affairs attributes the skyrocketing numbers to politicians and their belief that the only way to be perceived as doing something to combat crime is to add new restrictions and regulations to the criminal code.
“The burgeoning U.S. prison population reflects a federal criminal code that has spiraled out of control,” she wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine. “No one—not even the government itself—has ever been able to specify with any certainty the precise number of federal crimes defined by the 54 sections contained in the 27,000 or so pages of the U.S. Code.”
Harris also estimates that the number of crimes defined by the criminal code has increased by at least 2000 since the 1980s, and is only going to keep growing due to the belief politicians have that adding to the prison system is equal to taking action.
While the United States holds roughly five percent of the world’s population, it also holds roughly 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population. In contrast, countries who also have large populations such as India, Sweden and Japan have extremely low incarceration rates, averaging between 33 and 53 incarcerated people for every 100,000 residents.