NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

The High Rate Of U.S. Incarcerations

April 25, 2001

Many criminologists think we are sending too many people to prison. They argue that incarceration is inappropriate for a substantial minority of prisoners -- and much too expensive.

  • With nearly two million Americans currently in prisons or jails, we have an incarceration rate of 481 per 100,000 population.
  • That compares with 125 per 100,000 for Britain, 129 for Canada and 40 for Japan -- although Russia surpasses us at 685 per 100,000.
  • But the U.S. has historically been more violent than Europe, Canada or Japan -- in particular, our homicide rate is well above world norms.
  • Today there are 400,000 more violent offenders behind bars here than in 1980.

It could be argued that incarceration rates escalated here sharply in the 1990s because we had some catching up to do -- witness the fact that from the early 1960s to the early 1970s, the violent crime rate was rising sharply but the incarceration rate was actually falling.

According to Bureau of Justice Statistics, the proportion of state prisoners who are violent offenders has fallen from almost 60 percent in 1980 to 48 percent in 1999. In federal prisons, only 12 percent are doing time for violent crimes -- compared to 17 percent in 1990.

On the other hand, more inmates are behind bars for drug-related crimes. In state prisons, it is now 21 percent. In the federal system it is 58 percent -- compared with 25 percent in 1980.

Source: Cait Murphy, "Crime and Punishment," Fortune, April 30, 2001.


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