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July 12, 2011

Graph of the Day: America's Prison Problem

Benjamin Landy

According to the New York Times, the United States has less than 5% of the world’s population, but holds almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.

The reasons for this incredible discrepancy are myriad, complex, and fiercely debated. However, we do know that prison sentences tend to be far longer in the United States than in most other countries, and that Americans are habitually locked up for petty crimes (like abusing drugs or writing bad checks) that would rarely result in time behind bars elsewhere.

Looked at as a graph, the numbers are shocking. Only Russia and Rwanda come close to the incarceration rate of the United States, which is easily the highest in the world. Amazingly, there are nearly eight times as many prisoners per capita in America than in Europe.

Incarceration Rate
Adam Liptak considers some of the numerous explanations:

“Criminologists and legal experts here and abroad point to a tangle of factors to explain America's extraordinary incarceration rate: higher levels of violent crime, harsher sentencing laws, a legacy of racial turmoil, a special fervor in combating illegal drugs, the American temperament, and the lack of a social safety net.  Even democracy plays a role, as judges – many of whom are elected, another American anomaly – yield to populist demands for tough justice.”

Many experts further attribute America’s extreme incarceration rate to the easy availability of guns, which contributes to a murder rate four times that of Western Europe, and the DEA's efforts to combat drugs. While the American incarceration rate held relatively stable from 1925 until 1975, at around 110 prisoners per 100,000 people, that ratio began to increase rapidly in the late 1970s, as politicians competed to appear "tough on crime."

In 1980, before the so-called "War on Drugs" shifted into high gear, there were only about 40,000 people serving time for non-violent, drug-related crimes in the United States. Today, that number is close to half a million, and still climbing.


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