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

You must be logged in to post a comment Login