NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


January 17, 2007

Over the past 40 years, the United States has dismantled a colossal mental health complex and rebuilt an enormous prison system, says Bernard E. Harcourt, professor of law and criminology at the University of Chicago.


  • After more than 50 years of stability, federal and state prison populations skyrocketed from under 200,000 persons in 1970 to more than 1.3 million in 2002.
  • That year, our imprisonment rate rose above 600 inmates per 100,000 adults.
  • With the inclusion of an additional 700,000 inmates in jail, we now incarcerate more than two million people -- the highest number and rate in the world.

What few people realize, though, is that in the 1940s and '50s we institutionalized people at even higher rates -- only it was in mental hospitals and asylums:

  • When the data on state and county mental hospitalization rates are combined with the data on prison rates for 1928 through 2000, imprisonment numbers of the late 20th century barely reaches the level we experienced at mid-century.
  • Including residents of all mental facilities -- not just state and county -- from 1935 to 1963, the United States consistently institutionalized at rates well above 700 per 100,000 adults.

But it would be naïve, says Harcourt, to address any of these changes without also considering the impact of imprisonment on crime:

  • One of the most reliable studies estimates that the increased prison population over the 1990s accounted for about a third of the overall drop in crime that decade.
  • However, another recent study showed that the rate of institutionalization -- including mental hospitals -- was a far better predictor of serious violent crime from 1926 to 2000 than just prison populations.

Source: Bernard E. Harcourt, "The Mentally Ill, Behind Bars," New York Times, January 15, 2007.

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