Behind Bars

Why the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world and how we got there.

Rebecca Harris
Jun 15, 2015 · 6 min read

The Numbers

The United States is comprised of about 3% of the world’s population, yet we incarcerate about 25% of the world’s prisoners.

Check out this chart from the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

The War On Drugs

Much of the high rate of incarceration in the U.S. can be attributed to the War on Drugs, which was a phrase coined by Nixon when he was president. What most people don’t realize about Nixon’s “War on Drugs” however, is that two-thirds of the budget he set aside to fight the war on drugs was devoted to treatment to address rather than law enforcement.

That changed in later years, and since 1971 the War on Drugs has cost us over $1 trillion and resulted in more than 45 million arrests.

Obviously, what we’re doing isn’t really working.

Get interactive version of this infographic here.

Get interactive version of this chart here.

The Justice Bureau did a survey tracing around 404,000 prisoners in 30 states. They found that:

  • Within three years of release, about two-thirds of released prisoners were rearrested
  • within five years of release, about 76% of prisoners were rearrested

There are more African Americans incarcerated now than were enslaved when the civil war began.

3% of all African American males in the U.S. are in prison.

Today, more than in America have a parent behind bars. These children are much more likely to be incarcerated during their lifetime than other children.

Non-violent offenders make up over 60% of the prison population.

Check out this chart from the New York Times that shows the U.S. incarceration rate over the last 130 years.

The huge increase in the incarceration rate starting in the 80's was a result of new laws and cultural changes in the U.S. Part of this was the result of the War on Drugs, part was because of the three-strike rule in which any person convicted of three crimes, regardless of severity, is put into jail for life.

“We need to stop locking up people that we’re mad at, and start focusing on the people we’re scared of.” — Gene Johnson, Director of the Virginia Department of Corrections

Spending on the Prison System

In 2008 alone, the U.S. spent about on corrections. A study done by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) predicts that if we could reduce the number of non-violent offenders in our prisons by half, we would save about each year.

Incarceration costs tax payers an average of $168,000 per prisoner, per year.

Incarceration Hasn’t Risen Because Crime Has Risen

It would seem intuitive that the number of people in jail has skyrocketed because crime has skyrocketed. Well that’s not exactly true. Check out this chart from the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR):

Source: The High Budgetary Cost of Incarceration, CEPR

As you can see, after 1992 both violent crime and property crime declined getting back down to 1980 levels by 2008. But even with the decline in violent and property crime, the prison population continued to rapidly increase.

The evidence shows that putting more people in jail does have an effect on lowering the crime rate, but it’s really minimal and costs a ton of money with huge consequences to the prisoner’s families and their communities, consequences that perpetuate the crime/incarceration cycle.

Today, more than 2.7 million children in America have a parent behind bars. These children are much more likely to be incarcerated during their lifetime than other children.

“ Analysts are nearly unanimous in their conclusion that continued growth in incarceration will prevent considerably fewer, if any, crimes than past increases did and will cost taxpayers substantially more to achieve.”

— Don Stemen, Vera Institute of Justice

The Impact of Mandatory Minimums

Mandatory minimum sentences are a highly divisive issue. It’s critics believe that they cut out the judge’s discretion when it is needed and result in unjust punishment. Proponents say that they have helped lower crime and that drug offenders shouldn’t do drugs if they don’t want to go to jail.

Back in the day judges basically had full power in deciding the sentence of someone convicted of a crime. But after the drug and crime wave of the 60s and 70s, Congress passed laws in the 80s and 90s establishing mandatory minimum sentences, which said that no matter the circumstances or what the judge thought if you broke x, y and z laws you are guaranteed to get a certain amount of time in jail. No ifs ands or buts.

Doesn’t sound that crazy right? But as we have often seen, good intentions do not always make good policy.

“This was a different time in our history. Crime rates were way up, there was a lot of violence that was perceived to be associated with crack at the time. People in Congress meant well. I don’t mean to suggest otherwise. But it just turns out that policy is wrong. It was wrong at the time.”

— U.S. District Judge John Gleeson

Mandatory minimum sentences are a minimum number of years that must be served when a person is convicted of a certain crime. Mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes are based on the amount of drugs involved.

Source: PBS

Critics of mandatory minimum sentencing believe that they are ineffective and treat low-level drug addicts and drug offenders like they are high-level traffickers.

Like 46-year-old Josh Horner who was sentenced to 25 years in prison for selling $1,800 worth of painkillers. He was the father of three and was put away for a quarter of a century because of a mandatory minimum sentence.

Or Telisha Watkins, 33-years-old who received a 20-year prison sentence for one sale of crack becaues she had threep rior drug convictions.

Or Timothy Tyler who was struggling with both mental illness and drug addiction. He received a life sentence for distributing LSD at a Greatful Dead concert when he was 25-years old.

Or Atiba Parker who is in jail for 42 years for selling less than three grams of crack. His only prior convictions were misdemeanors for weed. He also struggled with mental illness and was using pot to self-medicate.

Proponents of mandatory minimums make sure that someone who commits a crime deemed particularly bad by society cannot avoid a “just punishment.” They argue that legislatures are better positioned than judges to decide what penalty shall be given to what category of crime.

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