U.S. Mass Incarceration Statistics

A new report from The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law (a nonpartisan law and policy institute that seeks to improve systems of democracy and justice) points out that a major contributor of the prison crisis is “a web of perverse financial incentives across the country that spurred more arrests, prosecutions, and prison sentences.” It observes further:

The federal government has played a central role in shaping the criminal justice landscape through grant money it provides states and localities. Currently, annual federal criminal justice grants total at least $3.8 billion. Since the 1960s, much of this funding has gone to support longer prison sentences, more arrests, and more prisons. This is also true for state and local budgeting.”

These numerous and remunerative grants incentivized the adoption of more punitive criminal justice policies, encouraging states and cities to increase arrests, prosecutions, and incarceration.

The report contains some shocking statistics. Although the United States has 5 percent of the world’s population, it has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, nearly 40 percent of whom are African American. The report also reveals that if the prison population were a state, it would be the 36th largest — bigger than Delaware, Vermont, and Wyoming combined!


It also observes that the criminal justice system costs taxpayers $260 billion a year, but mass incarceration has not improved the crime rate. While crime has fallen since 1991, The Brennan Center reports:

Increased incarceration accounted for approximately 6 percent of the reduction in property crime in the 1990s (this could vary statistically from 0 to 12 percent), and accounted for less than 1 percent of the decline in property crime this century. Increased incarceration has had little effect on the drop in violent crime in the past 24 years. In fact, large states such as California, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, and Texas have all reduced their prison populations while crime has continued to fall.”

diminishing returns1

Rather, the study revealed, quite surprisingly, that according to an empirical analysis, factors playing a role in the drop in crime include: the aging population, changes in income, and decreased alcohol consumption. A review of past research indicates that consumer confidence and inflation also seem to have contributed to crime reduction.

But perversely, since the 1970’s, “incarceration in the U.S. has increased steadily and dramatically.” In fact, the report finds that America’s prison population has grown 700 percent since 1970!

Prison Population 1978-2014, Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics, National Prisoner Statistics Program (2015)

Prison Population 1978-2014, Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics, National Prisoner Statistics Program (2015)

The prison construction boom is just one example of this growth industry. For a period in the 1990s, a new prison opened every 15 days on average. A Congressional Research Service Report on the economic impacts of prison growth found:

About 770,000 people worked in the corrections sector in 2008. The U.S. Labor Department expects the number of guards, supervisors, and other staff to grow by 9% between 2008 and 2018, while the number of probation and parole officers is to increase by 16%. In addition to those working directly in institutions, many more jobs are tied to a multi-billion dollar private industry that constructs, finances, equips, and provides health care, education, food, rehabilitation and other services to prisons and jails. By comparison, in 2008 there were 880,000 workers in the entire U.S. auto manufacturing sector.”

Furthermore, while imprisonment has a weak effect on crime rates, it has huge effects in other areas. Record incarceration rates contribute to increased income inequality and more concentrated poverty, especially among those now in single-parent homes. Many incarcerated parents previously were the main family breadwinners, and instability and increased poverty results from their imprisonment. A 2008 Bureau of Justice report found a record 1.7 million children under age 18 with an imprisoned parent. Moreover, upon their release, prisoners have lower lifetime earnings and are far less likely to move out of poverty than their peers who do not go to prison.



One Response

  1. I didn’t realize that the criminal justice system costs about $260 billion a year in the United States. How much of that cost goes towards keeping jail facilities up to date with security measures? Perhaps jail management techniques designed to save money and operate efficiently would help to ultimately reduce costs in the criminal justice system. http://www.justicesolutions.com/overview-features/jail-management

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