America certainly has a unique stance on crime and punishment. Some actions that would cause the typical American to go to prison for a significant period of time aren’t even considered crimes in most other countries around the world. As a result, we’ve accumulated some interesting, sometimes alarming statistics showing just how crowded we’ve made our prison system. The ones below describe the state of the system, especially compared to the rest of the world, and the social impact of our policies.
The U.S. has an incarceration rate of 743 per 100,000 people (2009)
That’s the highest rate in the world, an astonishing fact that can’t be repeated enough. However, it should be noted that crime in the U.S. in general has decreased over the last 20 years. For example, from 1980 to 2009, the murder rate decreased from 10.2 per 10,000 inhabitants to 5.0 in 2009; the violent crime rate decreased from 596.6 per 10,000 inhabitants to 429.4; and the robbery rate decreased from 251.1 per 10,000 inhabitants to 133. Now, whether or not the improvements are a result of harsher punishment has yet to be proven. For comparison, from 1925 to 1975, the crime rate stayed at about 110 per 100,000 people, excluding those kept in state and local jails.
The U.S. houses a quarter of the world’s prisoners (2008)
The U.S. population is 311,341,000, roughly 4.5 percent of the world’s population, and in 2008, it kept 2.3 million people behind bars. China, the world’s most populous country with 1,339,725,000 people, kept 1.6 million people behind bars the same year, though it should be noted that it had hundreds of thousands of people in administrative detention. During America’s younger years, it was regarded around the world as more relaxed on criminal justice, hence the Wild West reputation. But as the population has grown, particularly in cities, we’ve taken more drastic measures to control crime.
The U.S. houses more inmates than the top 35 European countries combined (2010)
Europe, which has a denser population than the U.S., is well-below the U.S. when it comes to incarceration rates. In England and Wales, for example, 139 people are imprisoned per 10,000, one of the highest rates in Western Europe. Harsher sentencing in recent years is blamed for the rise in prison population in the U.K. Nevertheless, it pales in comparison to America’s rate; only Easter Europe’s Belarus comes close, with a rate of 385 people imprisoned per 10,000.
The federal prison population has more than doubled since 1995 (2010)
Because the federal system is generally stricter than state systems and has expanded its jurisdiction over certain offenses, it has seen a drastic increase in the amount of people it houses. In particular, an increase in immigration cases since 1994 has been a main contributor, as they accounted for 28.2 percent of all federal sentencing in 2008, for example.
The number of state prisoners declined by 4,777 from December 2008 to January 2010
Possibly due to the recession, many have attributed the decline in state prisoners to large state budget deficits, which have forced states to release inmates to save money. However, according to the Pew Center on the States, the decline actually started just before the economic downturn due to a reduction in the amount of people sent to prison for new crimes, while the number of people released from prison increased. Of course, prison rates vary from state to state.
The most significant decreases in state prison populations from 2008 to 2009 occurred in California (-4,257), Michigan (-3,260) and New York (-1,699)
Overall, 26 states saw a decrease in prison population. California led them all, as the state has made an effort to cut the number of low-risk parolees returning to prison by expanding the use of intermediate sanctions. Overcrowding has been a problem for California; so much so that a deferral court in 2009 ordered the state to reduce its prison population by 40,000 in just two years. Michigan has cut its prison population by decreasing parole revocation rates, improving its reentry planning and supervision, and reducing the number of inmates who serve more than 100 percent of their minimum sentence.
The most significant increases in state prison populations from 2008 to 2009 occurred in Pennsylvania (+2,122), Florida (+1,527) and Indiana (+1,496)
During the last three decades, Pennsylvania’s prison population has expanded from 8,243 to 51,326. In recent years, the increase can be attributed to former Gov. Ed Rendell’s 2008 moratorium on paroles in response to the killing of a Philadelphia police officer by a paroled felon. The state also transferred prisoners out of state due to overcrowding. In Florida’s case, some attribute the rise to legislators failing to cut corrections spending like in many of the states that saw reductions in their prison populations.
Those who have spent time in prison earn 40 percent less annually (2010)
Universally, crime is associated with people from poor economic backgrounds who have few options in life. In many cases, those who’ve been incarcerated grew up around family members and friends who suffered the same fate. Their ability to escape the rut decreases greatly after their first offense, as their annual earnings are almost slashed in half because many employers refuse to hire them. Most unsettling is the fact that more than half of those incarcerated were the primary financial providers for their children.
One in every 28 children has an incarcerated parent (2010)
A quarter of a century ago, one in every 125 children had an incarcerated parent. The rise, of course, can be attributed to the implementation of harsher laws for lesser crimes; two-thirds of today’s incarcerated parents committed non-violent offenses. The above stat is one of the most disconcerting of all U.S.-related prison stats because common sense dictates that a child’s chances of growing up as a productive, law-abiding adult are greater when both of their parents play significant roles in their life.
More than one in three young black men without a high school diploma are in prison (2010)
Additionally, more black men without a high school diploma are incarcerated than employed. As previously mentioned, it’s more difficult to secure a job once a person has spent time in prison, further limiting the options of the already less fortunate. In fact, black men earn 44 percent less after they’ve been incarcerated, four percent less than the average for all races/ethnicities.