United States: The World’s Leading Jailer


The United States has a longstanding policy of mass incarceration. Recent statistics from the Bureau of Justice Statistic (BJS), a branch of the US Department of Justice, showed that the US has more than 2.4 million people behind bars on any given day, and an incarceration rate of 754 per 100,000 residents. This is the highest incarceration rate in the world, and it is much higher than rates in other democracies. In comparison, the rate in England is 154 per 100,000, in Canada it is 116 per 100,000 and in Japan only 63 per 100,000.

According to the BJS, in 2008 over 7.3 million people were either on probation, in jail, in prison or on parole. This amounts to an astonishing 3.2 percent of all US adult residents or 1 in every 31 adults. States and federal prison authorities had jurisdiction over 1,610,446 prisoners at year-end 2008; 1,409,116 in state jurisdiction and 201,280 in federal jurisdiction. Local jails held 785,556 persons awaiting trial or serving a sentence at mid-year 2008.

However, the new government figures show a slower growth in the prison population. The US prison’s population still grew by 0.8 percent from 2007 to 2008, which is the lowest annual growth in 8 years. Twenty states reported a decline in their prison population, with New-York, Georgia and Michigan reporting the largest reductions. In comparison, the growth of the prison population from 2000 to 2008 was 1.8 percent per year on average. During the 1990s, it was even higher with an incredible 6.5 percent incarceration rate increase per year on average.

The report confirms significant racial disparities in US criminal justice policy, with black men incarcerated at a rate of six and half times as high as that of white men. As the financial crisis has created record budget deficits at federal, state and local level, many states are amending their sentencing laws to reduce the use of incarceration.Other states have granted early release to prisoners convicted of minor non-violent offenses. This could be one of the only positive outcome of the recession, if  the United States could re-think its massive penal system, and reform it.

America is obsessed with crime & punishment, and because of it has an addiction to imprisonment. Imprisonment on this scale  is not only immoral, unpractical but most of all counter-productive. Crime and punishment are connected symbolically but  are disconnected in the reality of lowering crime and improving our social fabric. The crime rate, in the US, seems to have fluctuated of its own free will, unaffected by the billions thrown at the problem every year. Although crime declined throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium, incarceration rates climbed dramatically.

The cost of maintaining an inmate in the US penal system is around 40,000 dollars a year. The expenditure is creating a situation where state budgets are getting drained by the rising cost of the ever expending penal system, representing a cumulative amount of 50 billion this year. Politicians are coming up with the solution of deep cuts on education, health care and other social services and programs to make up the difference. Of course,  politicians should  be doing the exact opposite, it is precisely the lack of funding for quality public education and drug rehabilitation programs that have produced the gargantuan monster that is the United States penal system. The logic of mass incarceration to prove you are “tough on crime” has worked as an electoral slogan for both Republicans and Democrats, but putting people away and “throwing away the key” has not reduce crime or made our society any better.

To read the statistics of the Bureau of Justice Statistics from the DOJ click here.


5 Responses to United States: The World’s Leading Jailer

  1. Ole Ole Olson December 12, 2009 at 7:00 am

    These numbers continue to get worse. Although the solution is going to be more complex than this, a good start would be to immediately end the failed war on drugs. Almost a million yearly arrests just for marijuana is ridiculous. This prohibition and it’s insane costs must end.

  2. Barbara McSpadden December 12, 2009 at 5:16 pm

    The War At Home

    By my husband, Harold Baranoff

    Part of the United States strategy in Afghanistan involves changing the loyalties of the less ideological Taliban. The idea is that some, perhaps a significant number, can be convinced to switch to loyalties by the use of incentives. The term “Turning of Turbans” is being used to describe the change of perspective, focus and direction of an Afghan fighter.

    The strategy certainly has merit. Generally, when possible, it is better to cut a deal than fight a long and UN winnable war. There are many examples worldwide where opposition forces, including obvious terrorists, have gained amnesty and have been integrated into government forces, their political wings becoming above ground political parties and their leaders entering into governing coalitions.

    If we are willing to consider those sorts of options with the likes of the Taliban, certainly we should enter into negotiations much closer to home with an opposition force that is far less dangerous and one that is open to complete and completely peaceful reintegration now.

    I speak of the Marijuana Underground which is a loose association of mostly non-ideological Americans who live in daily opposition to American law. Today millions of Americans are at some level of conflict with the American Legal System, since mere possession of any detectable amount of marijuana is a crime.

    Close to 850,000 Americans were arrested last year on marijuana charges. That is approximately 3% of the population who have smoked marijuana in the last year. Tens of thousands of Americans sit in U.S. prisons on possession charges. In spite of the ongoing war on marijuana, no real dent has been made in the production, distribution, or consumption of this relatively harmless herb. The War on Marijuana is UN winnable.

    As a prisoner in an American Federal Prison, I offer the following proposal in the name of the millions of Americans in the Marijuana Underground:
    We are ready and willing to be fully integrated into the U.S. society at large. We offer our labors, our intellects and our financial resources. We commit to helping reverse global warming, end hunger, help make our cities safer, grow gardens, solarize houses, teach the children, care for the elderly, confront terrorism, improve medical care and reduce its costs, and pay our fair share of taxes while building new industries.

    We are ready to serve and ask very little in return. We want to end the marijuana arrests and gain freedom and amnesty for marijuana prisoners. We are willing to do more than our share. We will be model citizens. It is time to end the War on Marijuana. We are quite willing to “Turn our Turbans” and do our part to help reunite the United States of America.

    Mr. Baranoff is a P.O.W. held captive in a U.S. Federal; facility in rural Georgia, serving 41 months for marijuana possession.

    • Gilbert Mercier
      Gilbert Mercier December 13, 2009 at 12:40 pm

      Thanks you so much for this great testimony about the broken US penal system.

  3. casey December 16, 2009 at 4:05 pm

    Thanks for the interesting article. Disturbing data to be sure. Also appreciate the “insider” view. Something has been wrong with our mandatory drug laws for decades. When someone can be slammed with a lengthy sentence for selling–or just possessing a little dope–while murderers and rapists get out early because of over-crowding and naive parole boards, you know something is radically wrong.

  4. John December 18, 2009 at 5:22 pm

    The real issue here seems to be that NONE of our elected officials have the inner strength necessary to stand up for the abolishment of this absurd waste of our meager national resources (both in people and money). If we are gullible enough to fall for their “law and order” campaign slogans election after election then we get what we deserve.

    Live in fear and you are already living in prison.

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