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Sentencing Project Highlights U.S. Incarceration Fascination

According to a new Sentencing Project study, vividly set forth in a series of graphs and tables, from the 1920’s to the late 1970’s, the total number of people incarcerated in the United States never exceeded 200,000. However, in 2012 the number of people in federal custody alone surpassed that number by 19,000.  Currently there are almost 1.6 million in state and federal prisons.

The same study’s graphic rendering of incarceration rates worldwide illustrates just how out of balance incarceration is when compared with the rest of the world.  Normally when one thinks societies with high incarceration rates the Russian and Chinese governments come to mind, the common perception being that justice in those two countries in short supply.  The graphs tell a different story.

Incarceration rates in the U.S. far exceed those of Russia and China, by 25% in the case of the former, and 500% for the latter.  The rate of the U.S. exceeds that of most European by ten to one.

The contrast between America and the rest of the world becomes even starker when one examines the study’s pie charts which show the steady upward climb in the total number of people in county jails, as well as state and federal prisons.  There has been a 500% increase over the past 40 years.  The charts also reveal that the annual expenditure for state correctional activities has skyrocketed in the same time period, currently standing at $53.3 billion.

Also evident from the Sentencing Project’s data is the preponderance of convicted drug offenders in federal custody, while in state institutions the majority of prisoners are there for crimes of violence.  This reflects the sentencing policies of the federal government, focused on drug crimes, while the states’ focus is to keep violent criminals off the streets.  Rising prisoner counts in the past decades have also driven the number of Americans under supervision and probation to record levels, increasing from a little over 1 million in 1980 to over 4 million now.  In the same time period, the percentage of people incarcerated for drug crimes has increased from 20% to 50% nationwide.

The graphs also show what prisoner rights already know, that there is an increasing number of female prisoners, more than a ten-fold spike in the past ten years, which only serves to further disrupt family units.  It is no surprise that the majority of those serving time are doing so for drug crimes.  According to the study, the incarceration rate for women is increasing at a rate 50% greater than that for men.

Louisiana hold the dubious distinction of the highest overall incarceration rate, four times greater than that of New Hampshire, which has the lowest rate.  For men, Louisiana is also number one, seven times greater than Rhode Island.  The graphs show that southern states generally have higher incarceration rates than northern or New England states. Racial disparities in incarceration rates are also evident from the graphs, with 60% being people of color, and with Black and Latino men between five to three times more likely to be in jail than White men. 

The increasing number of life sentences in also evident, with five times more prisoners serving that sentence than in 1980.

These sobering statistics show that in every category of the population over the past thirty years that there has been stunning increases in incarceration rates and probation rates, illustrating that in all area of criminal punishment, the United States fascination with incarceration gives it the dubious distinction of being the most prolific jailer, despite a declining nation crime rate.



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