Note: click on the graphs/visuals to access the articles/sources they came from.
Terms to Know
- Imprisonment/Incarceration rate: the number of prisoners under state or federal jurisdiction in a prison or jail sentenced to more than one year, per 100,000 U.S. residents.
- Mandatory minimum: the fixed sentence that a judge is forced to deliver to an individual convicted of a crime, neglecting the culpability and other mitigating factors involved in the crime.
- Nonviolent crime: property, drug, and public order offenses which do not involve a threat of harm or an actual attack upon a victim. Typically, the most frequently identified nonviolent crimes involve drug trafficking, drug possession, burglary, and larceny.
- Property crime: includes the offenses of burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson.
- Violent crime: murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault; defined in the UCR Program as those offenses which involve force or threat of force.
The United States of America: a leader of the free and developed world. In a way, this claim can be a misnomer. Indeed, the U.S. leads as a global economic powerhouse. However, among all other countries in the world, the United States of America incarcerates more people within a population of 100,000. Moreover, despite holding only 5% of the world’s total population, the U.S. houses around 25% of the world’s known prison population.
From FiveThirtyEight “The Imprisoner’s Dilemma”:
There are 2.3 million Americans in prison or jail. The U.S. has 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prisoners. One in three black men can expect to spend time in prison. There are 2.7 million minors with an incarcerated parent. The imprisonment rate has grown by more than 400 percent since 1970.
With 2.3 million Americans in prison or jail, the U.S. has become a country known for it’s state of mass incarceration. While some laud the U.S., believing the high incarceration rate to be responsible for lowering crime rates, others criticize it, questioning the effects of mass incarceration on the country’s public safety, budget, and ideals of equality and fairness.
History of Mass Incarceration in the U.S.
The War on Drugs
Mass incarceration wasn’t a term truly applied to the United States until the 1970’s. It can be seen in the graph below that for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the U.S. incarceration rate remained fairly steady and even began to decline somewhat in the years prior to 1970.
It wasn’t until the presidencies of Richard Nixon (in office 1969-1974), Ronald Reagan (1981-1989), and Bill Clinton (1993-2001) that the incarceration rate truly began to balloon, nearly doubling each decade following 1980. Coined by Nixon, all three presidents pursued policies focused around the “War on Drugs”, federal policies that increased incarceration by cracking down on drug trafficking and generated funding for ad campaigns to discourage drug use. In conjunction to these policies, the federal Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which set mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, also contributed to a portion of the increase in U.S. prisoners.
From Cengage Learning Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History, 2015:
The total number of prisoners in U.S. federal prisons rose from under 25,000 in the 1970s to approximately 200,000 in 2011. The proportion of prisoners convicted of drug offenses also increased during that period.
As shown in the graph below, it was following the mid-1980’s that there was an upsurge in the population of drug offenders among the total U.S. prison population.
However, while the War on Drugs did contribute to a large portion of the increase in the total population of U.S. prisoners, other factors are believed to have also played a role in the rise of the prisoner population.
Some have attributed a part of the increase in the U.S. prison population to the privatization of the prison industry (also known as for-profit prisons), in which individuals are imprisoned or incarcerated by a third-party contracted by the government.
From American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) “Private Prisons”:
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, for-profit companies were responsible for approximately 7 percent of state prisoners and 18 percent of federal prisoners in 2015 (the most recent numbers currently available).
In theory, when state governments have too many prisoners and too little prisons, private companies will step in and provide privately run prisons. These companies charge the government a fee for a fixed amount of prisoners, and by shifting control of prisons to private companies, the system is meant to reduce government waste while increasing the capacity of incarceration.
Theoretically, private prisons provide a practical solution for the shortage of available prison facilities. However, in practice, the system has proven to be less effective that expected. Studies have shown that, in contrast to public prisons, savings for private prisons were minimal, and in some cases, more expensive.
“There’s a perception that the private sector is always going to do it more efficiently and less costly,” said Russ Van Vleet, a former co-director of the University of Utah Criminal Justice Center. “But there really isn’t much out there that says that’s correct.”
For instance in 2010, in Arizona’s minimum-security prisons, it was found that the cost of an inmate in public facilities was $46.59 per day. In private facilities, it was $46.56, amounting to a $0.03 saving per inmate in private facilities. For medium-security prisons, however, it was found that Arizona lost money. The cost per day of an inmate in a private facility was $4.60 more expensive than an inmate in a public facility.
While relatively minimal, within the context of a year, an inmate in a private prison can cost as much as or more than the cost of an inmate in a state-run prison.
Experts disagree on the true extent of the impact of for-profit prisons on incarceration rates and U.S. fiscal health. Proponents of the current system argue that private facilities have resulted in job creation and high profits, proving beneficial to the economy. However, opponents cite the state of mass incarceration as an economic and moral disaster.
Regardless of the impact to incarceration rates, however, the private prison industry is not free from corruption and questionable habits. In 2010, a scandal known as “Kids for Cash” made headlines. Two Pennsylvania juvenile court judges were found guilty of accepting kickbacks from private, for-profit prisons in exchange for sentencing thousands of juveniles to detention centers for minor infractions. And in 2013 in Arizona, a private prison sued the state for a lack of prisoners. In July, 2010, three violent inmates had escaped from a privately run prison in Arizona, prompting officials to stop sending new inmates to the facility. However, due to the violation of a line in the company’s contract that specified that the prison must be 97% full at all times, the company won $3 million from the state.
Similar to the contract seen in the 2013 case, prisoner quotas are not unusual in contracts between states and private companies. The 2011 Huffington Post graphic shown below shows prisons from three of the largest private prison companies with prisoner quota contracts and the imprisonment rates of states.
As seen in the graphic, states with quota contracts with either GEO, MTC, or CCA tend to have imprisonment rates of 300-449 or greater. While it’s impossible to establish a relationship between prisoner quotas and high imprisonment rates, when two-thirds of private prison contracts (including those outside of GEO, MTC, and CCA) contain prisoner quotas, with violations resulting in the risk of states being sued, one has to wonder if the possible benefits of for-profit prisons to the economy outweighs the moral obligations of states to its citizens.
Beliefs Surrounding Incarceration in the U.S.
With such a high incarceration rate, the question of “Is a high incarceration rate effective in lowering the crime rate?” arises. With only two factors, it would be logical to believe that the answer to this question would be “yes”. With more criminals and crime offenders locked away from society, the incidence of crime, primarily violent crime, should decrease. Furthermore, with stricter punishments and longer sentences, in addition to the long-term imprisonment of criminals, individuals would be less likely to commit crimes in fear of getting caught.
As witnessed during the presidencies of Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton, the utilization of incarceration as a means of reducing crime was prominent, along with political propaganda in support of harsher penalties and longer sentences. For instance, during the implementation of Bill Clinton’s Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, several noteworthy quotes include:
“Gangs and drugs have taken over our streets and undermined our schools. Every day we read about somebody else who has literally gotten away with murder.” – Bill Clinton, 1994
“We need more police, we need more and tougher prison sentences for repeat offenders. The ‘three-strikes-and-you’re-out’ for violent offenders has to be part of the plan. We need more prisons to keep violent offenders for as long as it takes to keep them off the streets.” – Hillary Clinton, 1994
Note: “three-strikes-and-you’re-out” refers to the “Three Strikes” statute that provides for mandatory life imprisonment if a convicted felon: (1) has been convicted in federal court of a “serious violent felony”; and (2) has two or more previous convictions in federal or state courts, at least one of which is a “serious violent felony” (the other offense may be a serious drug offense).
Since then, however, both Bill and Hillary Clinton have renounced mass incarceration as a means of reducing crime. As seen by the data and graphs shown in the next section (See: The Relationship Between Incarceration and Crime), the relationship between incarceration and crime rates is not as obvious as one would hope.
The Relationship Between Incarceration and Crime
Incarceration in the U.S. and Other Countries
As mentioned in the introduction, the United States of America contains 5% of the global population and 25% of the total known prison population, lending to its title as the world’s largest jailer. With an incarceration rate of 670 per 100,000 people, the U.S. has an abnormally high incarceration rate relative to other similarly developed nations, such as Canada, with an incarceration rate of 114, and Germany, with an incarceration rate of 76. Even in comparison to Rwanda, a country with thousands of people sentenced or awaiting trial as a result of the 1994 genocide that killed an estimated 800,000 people, the U.S. still exceeds its incarceration rate per 100,000 people by approximately 230 people.
In regards to raw numbers, the U.S. has a population of around 323 million and has 2.3 million prisoners. China, a country with approximately 1.4 billion people and an incarceration rate of 118, has a total incarcerated population of approximately 1.5 million, 800 thousand prisoners less than the U.S..
With such high incarceration rates in the U.S., one would believe that the U.S. would have violent crime rates lower than those seen in countries with lower incarceration rates. However, as seen by the graphic shown below using victimization rates per 10 crimes, the U.S. has a similar victimization rate to other western countries, but a significantly higher incarceration rate.
According to The Washington Post’s article:
The United States ranked about midpoint in logged homicide rates in 2004 to 2012 compared to more than 100 countries, but still had the highest logged incarceration rate in 2010 to 2013. (Other research also shows the United States ranks higher in homicide rates compared to OECD countries, but does not have as high rates in lesser crimes. The United States has higher homicide rates than other economically developed countries, and is also an outlier for armed robbery.)
While the U.S. has lower rates in lesser crimes (property, non-violent, etc.), violent crime (such as homicide) rates remain relatively higher than those seen in its similarly developed counterparts. As a result, one has to wonder: are the high incarceration rates witnessed in the U.S. truly conducive to lowering violent crime rates?
A Glimpse Into the State of States
Taking a closer look into incarceration and crime rates within the United States, the relationship between the two aren’t as clear as one would assume. As seen in the graphs below, despite the rising incarceration rate, both the violent and property crime rates continued to increase or fluctuate for a period of time before finally decreasing.
Graphs created by Julie Liu, 2017; data source(s): Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice
Note: refer to the vertical axis on the right for numerical data on “Property crime rate per 100,000 people”
Moreover, when analyzing percent changes in incarceration and crime rates among states, the believed negative correlation between the two factors is essentially nonexistent.
From FiveThirtyEight “The Imprisoner’s Dilemma”:
Fifteen states have experienced decreases in property crimes and incarceration rates since 2000. Those states are in the shaded region. A similar pattern emerges for violent crime. Of the states that reduced incarceration, only two saw an increase in violent crime. Thirteen saw decreases. Again, states in the shaded region saw drops in crime and incarceration.
Data source(s): BJS, FBI
As suggested by the graphs above, a state’s change in incarceration is not strongly linked with its change in crime. In fact, as seen by the simple linear regression, during the time period from 2000-2013, a percent increase in the imprisonment rate as been associated with a percent increase in the crime rate.
The state of mass incarceration in the United States has become a national crisis. With little data in support of the high rates of incarceration in the U.S. either domestically or internationally, it has become clear that increasing sentencing and/or the severity of punishment may not be sufficient to lowering crime rates – in fact, overly increasing either may lead to a saturated effect, losing effectiveness after a certain point.
Instead, in the search for solutions to crime in the U.S., analyzing other factors that may affect crime rates (such as socioeconomic status of individuals and communities, the education system, and job-training for short-term imprisoned individuals) may prove valuable to ending the reign of mass incarceration in America. With 2.3 million Americans in prison today, it has become a moral and ethical obligation to find solutions to what can be considered an epidemic. I fully believe that while change may be difficult, it is possible.
I encourage readers to conduct further research into the topic of incarceration in the U.S.. Some readings and films that I personally recommend include:
- 13th (film) by filmmaker Ava DuVernay
- Criminal: How Lockup Quotas and “Low-Crime Taxes” Guarantee Profits for Private Prison Corporations
- How to Reduce Crime
- Private Prisons Found to Offer Little in Savings
- The Imprisoner’s Dilemma
- The Problem With Privatizing Prisons
Thank you for taking the time to read through my article! Information about the sources that appeared in Land of the Incarcerated can be found in the next section.
About the Sources
- The Arizona Department of Corrections is a state government agency responsible for the incarceration of inmates in 10 prisons in the U.S. state of Arizona.
- The United States Bureau of Justice Statistics is a federal government agency belonging to the U.S. Department of Justice and a principal agency of the U.S. Federal Statistical System.
- The FBI is the domestic intelligence and security service of the United States and it serves as the U.S. principal federal law enforcement agency.
Other Parties (and Their Sources)
- The ACLU is a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization “working in courts, legislatures, and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties that the Constitution and the laws of the United States guarantee everyone in this country.”
- Data source(s): BJS
- NH Prison Watch is an offshoot of The State Employees’ Association of New Hampshire. NH Prison Watch aims to inform citizens of New Hampshire about the risks of prison privatization in New Hampshire and elsewhere.
- Data source(s): Arizona Department of Corrections
- FiveThirtyEight is a website created by analyst Nate Silver that focuses on opinion poll analysis, politics, economics, and sports blogging. The site has published articles on a wide variety of topics in current politics and political news.
- Data source(s): BJS, FBI
- Cengage is an education and technology company that “serves the higher education, K-12, professional, library and workforce training markets worldwide.” Cengage Learning, and associated companies, publish informative textbooks used in classrooms across the nation.
- Huffington Post is a liberal American news and opinion website and blog. It is acknowledged that Huffington Post is inherently politically biased. However, the graphic used from Huffington Post draws on actual data published by governmental and research organizations.
- Data source(s): BJS, In the Public Interest (ITPI)
- The ICVS “is the most comprehensive analysis of crime, security and safety ever conducted in the European Union. The survey was carried out in the 15 old member states of the Union plus Poland, Hungary and Estonia, [and] was co-funded by the European Commission, DG.”
- “In the Public Interest, is a comprehensive research and policy center committed to promoting the values, vision, and agenda for the common good and democratic control of public goods and services.”
- The World Prison Brief (WPB) is a database that provides free access to information about prison systems throughout the world. Country information is updated on a monthly basis, using data largely derived from governmental or other official sources.
- Prison Legal News is a non-profit magazine/online news site that reports on criminal justice issues and prison and jail-related civil litigation, mainly in the United States. “PLN has regular contributing writers, most of whom are currently or formerly incarcerated, and also solicits and publishes articles by other writers.”
- The Washington Post is a popular U.S. newspaper that has an emphasis on national politics.
- Data source(s): ICVS, Tapio Lappi-Seppälä (director of the Institute of Criminology and Legal Policy at the University of Helsinki)
- The Sentencing Project is a nonprofit organization that “works for a fair and effective U.S. criminal justice system by promoting reforms in sentencing policy, addressing unjust racial disparities and practices, and advocating for alternatives to incarceration.”
- Data source(s): WPB