When Attorney General Eric Holder announced last week that he would be issuing instructions to federal prosecutors that could result in fewer mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders, it wasn't the risky policy change it would have been only a few years ago. With crime on a two-decade-long downward arc, politicians and policymakers don't have to worry as much as they used to about being tagged as "soft on crime." In fact, there's so much toughness already built into our criminal-justice system that unless we start lopping off thieves' hands, it couldn't get much tougher. Though the change Holder announced would affect only those convicted of federal crimes, it has brought renewed attention to our enormous prison population.
And just how enormous is it? What follows are the details.
In 1992, there were 1.3 million inmates in America's prisons and jails; by two decades later, a million more had been added (the data in this article are taken from the Bureau of Justice Statistics unless indicated otherwise). The majority of those—around 60 percent—are in state prisons, where most people who commit crimes end up. Only around 10 percent are in federal prisons, despite the attention those prisons receive; the rest are held in local jails. And that doesn't include the millions more on probation and parole. At the end of 2011, there were 2.2 million Americans incarcerated, 854,000 on parole, and almost 4 million on probation, meaning just under 7 million Americans—or one out of every 34 adults—were being supervised by the criminal-justice system.
Why so many? There are lots of reasons. The war on drugs plays a part, as does the fact that, particularly compared to other developed countries, we're a society with lots of poverty, lots of crime, and lots of violence. Additionally, state after state (and the federal government) in the '90s passed laws lengthening sentences for many crimes, particularly drug crimes. If you got convicted, you'd stay in prison far longer. About half the states also passed "three strikes and you're out" laws mandating that anyone convicted of a third felony would be sentenced to a long prison term—usually life or 25 years. Many states required the third felony to be a violent crime, but California's law was the most strict, requiring that any felony send a repeat offender to jail for 25 years to life.
In practice, this policy meant that people received life sentences for things like stealing a piece of pizza. After thousands of people received such terms, California voters amended the law in 2012 to require that the third conviction be a violent felony.
Nevertheless, the last two decades have seen a remarkable drop in crime rates, which peaked in the early 1990s after three decades of steady increases. The degree to which lengthier sentences contributed to the drop is a complicated subject we can't address fully here, but most agree they made at least some contribution, alongside factors like new policing techniques, the decline in the popularity of crack after the 1980s, and lowered environmental lead levels. Nevertheless, even as crime rates dropped dramatically, the incarcerated population continued to rise. The incarceration rate—the number of prisoners per 100,000 population—increased by two-thirds between 1990 and 2008, from 461 to 787.
And on this we can not-so-proudly say, we're number 1. Not only do we imprison more of our citizens than any other country in the world, it isn't even close. As a proportion of our population we imprison 17 times as many people as Iceland, 12 times as many as Japan, and 10 times as many as Switzerland. The only country that even gets into the same neighborhood as us is Russia.
And we don't just beat out developed countries, we're also ahead of less-developed countries—all of them. Despite a slight drop in 2011, our rate remains over 700 prisoners for every 100,000 residents. Rwanda has Africa's highest incarceration rate at 595 prisoners per 100,000 population (many of whom participated in the country's genocide in 1994). The highest in Central America, Belize, has 439 prisoners per 100,000 population, while South America's highest is Chile at 305. The highest in Asia is Kazakhstan at 351. None even approach America's rate.
Of course, every part of the United States isn't the same. Since most inmates are in state prisons and each state has its own crime and sentencing laws—not to mention different levels of economic development, different levels of gun ownership, and different cultures that might or might not produce more violence—it isn't surprising that there's a wide degree of variance between states.
You might have noticed that nine of the top ten are "red" states where Republicans make the rules. Seven of the ten, furthermore, are in the South. Louisiana is truly a leader, imprisoning five times as many people as Maine, Massachusetts, or Minnesota as a proportion of their populations.
There are well over 300,000 people in state and federal prison for drug offenses, but only in federal prison do they make up a majority of the inmates. Most of those in state prison are there for violent crimes like murder, assault, and robbery. As you look at this graph keep in mind that the totals are very different: state prisons housed 1.35 million prisoners last year, while federal prisons held only 218,000.
Finally, you can't talk about prisons without talking about race. African Americans in particular are over-represented in prisons; though they are 13 percent of the population, they made up 38 percent of the population of state prisons in 2011. The crimes that landed them there, however, are not too different from their white and Hispanic counterparts. Eighteen percent of blacks in state prisons were convicted of drug crimes, compared to 15 percent of whites and 17 percent of Hispanics. That doesn't mean that one common complaint—that though whites and blacks use drugs at similar rates, blacks are much more likely to be arrested for it—isn't true, because it is. But blacks are also more likely to be arrested for other crimes. Blacks and Hispanics are slightly more likely than whites to be convicted of violent crimes, while whites are slightly more likely to be convicted of property crimes like burglary, larceny, and car theft. But the leading violent crime that lands blacks in prison is robbery, while the leading violent crime for whites is rape or sexual assault. More than twice as many blacks are in state prison for robbery as for rape, while for whites the proportions are reversed (see Table 10 here).