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U.S. Has Highest Rate of Incarceration in the World
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Posted by

Michael M. Levin, Esq.


May 16, 2013 - 3:00 pm

Incarceration in the United States of America is one of the main forms of punishment, rehabilitation, or both for the commission of felony and other offenses. The United States has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world. At year-end 2009, it was 743 adults incarcerated per 100,000 population.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), 2,266,800 adults were incarcerated in U.S. federal and state prisons, and county jails at year-end 2011 – about 0.7% of adults in the U.S. resident population. Additionally, 4,814,200 adults at year-end 2011 were on probation or on parole. In total, 6,977,700 adults were under correctional supervision (probation, parole, jail, or prison) in 2011 – about 2.9% of adults in the U.S. resident population.

US_incarceration_timeline-clean-fixed-timescale_svgImage EnlargerAnd the numbers are going up!  As the graph to the left shows, the numbers have skyrocketed since 1980–at about one half million prisoners– to 2005- nearly five times as many.  So why?  Why does the land of the free have the highest rate of unfree people in the world?

Why are we at the top of the list?

The United States has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world (743 per 100,000 population), Russia has the second highest rate (577 per 100,000), followed by Rwanda (561 per 100,000). As of year-end 2009 the USA rate was 743 adults incarcerated in prisons and jails per 100,000 population. At year-end 2007 the United States had less than 5% of the world’s population and 23.4% of the world’s prison and jail population (adult inmates).

Incarceration_rates_worldwideImage Enlarger

By comparison the incarceration rate in England and Wales in October 2011 was 155 people imprisoned per 100,000 residents; the rate for Norway in May 2010 was 71 inmates per 100,000; Netherlands in April 2010 was 94 per 100,000; Australia in June 2010 was 133 per 100,000; and New Zealand in October 2010 was 203 per 100,000. A 2008 New York Times article points out:

Still, it is the length of sentences that truly distinguishes American prison policy. Indeed, the mere number of sentences imposed here would not place the United States at the top of the incarceration lists. If lists were compiled based on annual admissions to prison per capita, several European countries would outpace the United States. But American prison stays are much longer, so the total incarceration rate is higher. … “Rises and falls in Canada’s crime rate have closely paralleled America’s for 40 years,” Mr. Tonry wrote last year. “But its imprisonment rate has remained stable.”

So it would seem that the answer to the question WHY is apparent: the United States locks people up for longer than any other country in the world.  For all our patting ourselves on the back for our adherence to the rule of law, our system of punishment is harsher than the rest of the world’s.  That may explain why the United States is the only “western” country that has a death penalty.


Posted by



May 16, 2013 - 10:20 pm

Very interesting.  Not sure if this is something the U.S. should be proud of, or embarrassed about.

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May 17, 2013 - 2:05 pm

Seems like a problem that really boils down to partisan politics. Because of our two-party political system you end up with people directly opposing each other’s views simply on the basis that they belong to the other party. This ends up forcing neocons to “sell” themselves by appearing tough on crime, and in order to appear that way they just heighten the punishments over and over to one-up the last guy. This is where that’s gotten us.  In more totalitarian places like China, there is essentially one party, so there’s no need for one-upsmanship.  In Europe and most other western countries, they have a multi party system, so taking a “tough on crime” stance doesn’t advance a “conservative” agenda.  Maybe we need more diversity???

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