US Incarceration Rates Are Out of Control

I knew it was bad, but not this bad:

(Spotted via Ian Welsh, Justice is not Law, Law is Not Justice.)

I admit the graph is a tiny bit misleading — it uses absolute numbers rather than percentages of population, which would be better. But even making that correction doesn’t change much: US population grew from 226.5 million in 1980 to 308.7 million in 2010, a 73%36% increase. Meanwhile, however, the number of persons incarcerated almost quadrupled.

Our incarceration rate is by far the highest in the world. The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population. But it has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners. However you draw it, we need to change the shape of this curve. Drug laws are probably the place to start. Three strikes rules would be next. Preventing the privatization of prisons — which creates a lobby for more incarceration — is another good move. Similarly, changing the electoral rule that counts prisoners as (usually non-voting due to felony disqualification) residents of the district in which they are incarcerated rather than their last regular address would also decrease the incentive for state and congressional representatives from those rotten boroughs to push for more rules that create more prisoners.

Ian Welsh argues that plea bargaining should be eliminated also. Civil law trained ethicists tend to agree, however, that the plea bargaining system is immoral since it empowers the prosecutor at the expense of the neutral (the judge) thus producing outcomes we have less faith are just, and puts the defendant to a terrible choice in which he is threatened with punishment — more charges, no deal on sentence — for exercising his right to mount a defense. I’ve long thought there’s something to it but one has to admit that as things stand eliminating plea bargaining would drive the system to a halt unless we first cut down on the number of things we call crimes.

Keep all this in mind while you enjoy thinking about the beneficial effects on the crime rate caused by removing lead from the environment.

This entry was posted in Law: Criminal Law. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to US Incarceration Rates Are Out of Control

  1. Vic says:


    Is it because the United States works harder at catching and convicting bad guys?


    Is it because the United States is putting a whole lot of people in jail who shouldn’t be?


    Is it because the United States has too many criminal laws (or at least more in relation to other countries where fewer people are in jail)?


    The statistic by itself means NOTHING, but is merely the (*wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more, say no more *) “evidence” to accompany a viewpoint of some sort or another.

    It’s the kind of thing that you offer to a dinner table full of people who think the same way you do, and all nod together at some unstated meaning.

    I don’t honestly know whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing that we have x numbers of people in jail, and I doubt you actually do either (based on your stated areas of expertise), but I know enough to know that I have NO IDEA what these stats mean really.

    • David says:

      As a criminal defense attorney, I would say all of the above. The US works very hard to incarcerate people, lavishly funds prisons and jails (and jailers) owing to the strongest lobby and unions in the nation, and has way too many laws that enhance, modify, qualify, and bumps up the degrees of badness of every imaginable micro element of an offense. I would attribute it also to a population that is more law and order than disposed towards freedom (“take a little of my freedom to make me feel safe”). And I agree plea bargaining is simply no way to achieve any kind of fair outcome. As a supervising prosecutor I used to work for was fond of saying, “They may be able to beat the rap, but they can’t beat the ride.” Most people end up accepting the rap to avoid the most of the ride. As anyone with a life will tell you, incarceration is extremely disruptive in the short term and destabilizing in the long term.

  2. Pingback: Links for 01-17-2013 | The Penn Ave Post

  3. Bobby Goren says:

    Another example of how the Reagan years were the beginning of the end of America. Further, the “Git Tuff on Crime” philosophy adopted by conservatives is little more than a toxic blend of racism and pandering to rural employment needs.

  4. Doug Korty says:

    Vic’s comments are fair but based on ignorance. I have read many books and articles on this subject, the evidence seems to say that we incarcerated too many people for drug crimes and other victimless crimes rather than treating them for addictions, etc. Also, poverty, discrimination, unemployment are problems we should be dealing with and if we did, we would almost certainly have much less crime. Many innocent people are convicted and sentenced. Our society and criminal justice system and prisons create criminals and we should try to figure out how to stop that. Because of the overcrowding of prisons and the court system, many serious criminals go free or serve short sentences. This puts us all at greater risk. The system is a mess according to almost anyone who knows anything about it.

    • Vic says:

      If you see water on the street, it might mean that it rained recently, or it might mean that the street was just washed. Using ONLY the evidence of water on the street, you cannot say for sure. It could be either thing, or maybe something else. That’s true even if you live in a rainy climate.

      Similarly, if you show a chart that simply says that incarceration rates are up, it ONLY says anything about “why” if you mentally add your own justifications (i.e. “I think it’s because they are jailing too many innocents,” or “I think it’s because we are now tougher on crime.”) The chart says little on its own, if it can be interpreted in different ways – just like water on the street says little on its own.

      That’s all I was saying. I made no comment about whether the system might be broken or not, or whether poverty is important, or whether people should be incarcerated for “victimless” crimes, or any of that. I am not ignorant of systemic problems (I’m probably far more versed in them that you are – and not from “reading many books on the subject”), but snazzy charts that say nothing are not informative of the issues.

  5. carlyle says:

    The easy incarceration practices of America are part of the plan to protect capital from the rabble. When needed, the Occupy protesters can be quickly slapped down.

  6. sklein says:

    I think your math is a bit off…

    US population grew from 226.5 million in 1980 to 308.7 million in 2010, a 73% increase

    • You are right. That should be 36%. I’ll correct the text. Thank you.

    • steven says:

      There is part of the problem, ignorant fools like you. Thats not 70 some percent, you need to review basic math dude. The author’s math is correct. Divide the change by the base and that gives you the percentage growth. where the heck do you get 70 some percent? And yes I agree, REAGAN is way over rated, he talked a lot alright, but he wasn’t that much of a president as so many like to reminisce.

      Interesting how time fades memories.

  7. It is of course true that merely pointing out that about 1% of the US population is behind bars, way more than even in China or South Africa, does not explain why. (Note that the problem is even worse than it sounds since there are also many former prisoners no longer in prison, but marginalized as nearly unemployable felons.) But it does suggest pretty strongly that there is a problem somewhere. The appropriate social response would be to speculate as to causes, and then test those speculations. I lack the means to do the tests, so I can only speculate.

    Given that our incarceration rate is so much higher than Canada, Australia or the UK, I find it very hard to imagine that the causes are a better rate of catching bad guys, but if someone wants to test that hypothesis, more power to them. I would bet it is more likely to be a combination of our drug laws and longer minimum sentences. We’ve stripped judges of much of their sentencing discretion in the past two decades for reasons both good (very wide disparities) and bad (legislatures like to look “tough” on crime). I’d also hypothesize we spend less on prevention than comparable countries. For example, drug addiction is, IMHO, primarily a medical issue and should be treated as such rather than a criminal one.

  8. Geoff says:

    Just yesterday, I had the opportunity to spend a couple hours listening to sentencing hearings. Over and over, someone came in with a minor drug problem funded by petty theft; over a dozen cases I didn’t see anyone I’d be scared to leave in a room alone with my kids.

    Over and over, the judge would say this person is “not deserving of treatment”, or that “Prison is supposed to be a punishment, not be good for you”, and order punitive prison terms, punitive restitution, and no treatment. A few years from now, the young men and women I saw will be released with no job training, no treatment for their addiction, and thousands of dollars in debt. A few might escape the cycle, but it was clear that the main path was to be back in the system within a year, listening to a judge tell them that because they haven’t reformed he’s going to double their sentence.

    Two days ago, I shared Vic’s concern. I would encourage anyone who thought like Vic or I to go down to your local courthouse, pick any room where they are doing sentencing, and just listen for a couple of hours.

    • Vic says:

      Again, I have no “concern” in this, nor have I stated any personal opinion that one or the other of my stated possibilities is what I believe.

      I do find it interesting (and directly to my original point) that the ASSUMPTION is that my post indicates that I must think differently than how Michael believes on this, because I didn’t just agree with him. (It shows there IS a necessary bias involved.)

  9. Jim Harrison says:

    You could argue that before we put too many people in prison, we didn’t incarcerate enough. In the 60s and 70s, when the crime rate began to spike, we had notably lenient sentencing; and that set the stage for the subsequent grotesque overshoot. The high crime era and the high incarceration era have something in common, though: in both periods, public investment in safe neighborhoods were grossly inadequate. In lieu of having enough local cops and local justice to prevent crime, we simply increased our means for punishing more offenders, which is not the same thing at all. Cops act like members of an occupying army, both because there are not enough of them to do anything else and because they typically aren’t don’t live in the neighborhoods in which they patrol. County prosecutors run the criminal justice system and make all the important decisions for what goes on in cities This evolution of the system from a system of justice to one of administration is profoundly anti-democratic. Juries no longer get to define what is counts as truly criminal behavior. Meanwhile, judges, hamstrung by laws that mandate sentences, are turned into bureaucratic functionaries. They don’t judge at all. They just rubber stamp plea deals—tickets to prison issued by prosecutors, who have no personal stake in the human harm all this incarceration causes and, for that matter, essentially no legal liability for overreaching.

  10. ltlee1 says:

    I have a question concerning the following claim:

    “changing the electoral rule that counts prisoners as (usually non-voting due to felony disqualification) residents of the district in which they are incarcerated rather than their last regular address would also decrease the incentive for state and congressional representatives from those rotten boroughs to push for more rules that create more prisoners. ”

    The current electoral rule increases the number of residents of some districts. But how could such increase benefit the state and congressional representatives and therefore encourage them to push for more rules?

    • In states with felon disenfranchisement, the district swollen by the prisoners has as a resultingly smaller voting public — a group that disproportionately represents people with a financial interest in the prison: workers, builders, guards and so on. That gives them excessive political clout, especially at the state level where districts are smaller.

  11. Bobby Goren says:

    Well, it’s not surprising our adult incarceration rate is so high. Just look at how we treat juvenile offenders. Can anyone honestly say our kids are that much worse than other industrialized countries? Our incarceration rate is nearly 5 times that of the next highest on the list – South Africa!

    “Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
    O’er the land of the JAILED and the home of the SCARED”

    Via –
    The Case for Reducing Juvenile Incarceration
    The Annie E. Casey Foundation

    Incarcerations per 100,000 Youth Population
    Australia ; 24.9
    England & Wales ; 46.8
    Finland ; 3.6
    France ; 18.6
    Germany ; 23.1
    Italy ; 11.3
    Japan ; 0.1
    Netherlands ; 51.3
    New Zealand ; 68.0
    Scotland ; 33.0
    South Africa ; 69.0
    Sweden ; 4.1
    USA ; 336.0

    Source: Hazel, Neal, Cross-National Comparison of Youth Justice, London: Youth Justice Board, 2008.

  12. steven says:

    just as Eisenhower warned us of the industrial military complex, we are now seeing the emergence of a prison industrial complex, money makes a lot of people do things they would not otherwise engage in

  13. Matt Green says:

    One suggestion the author makes to reduce incarcerations rates is to limit the privatization of prisons. I read an interesting article ( on how Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate (check out this cool map to see the updated stats and that the primary driver is that the majority of prisons in LA are private, for-profit enterprises. What stronger incentive to lock up as many people as possible than cold hard cash?

Comments are closed.