The United States has one of the highest documented incarceration rates in the world. It represents about 4.4 percent of the world’s population but houses around 22 percent of the world’s prisoners. It has 655 inmates per 100,000 of population. Roughly 2.12 million people were incarcerated in the United States in 2020. That makes the U.S. by far the incarceration leader among large, industrialized nations.
And it’s getting worse. Since 1970, our incarcerated population has increased by 700 percent. Since 1991 the rate of violent crime in the United States has fallen by about 20 percent, while the number of people in prison or jail has risen by 50 percent.
It’s no surprise that racial prejudice in the U.S. results in incarceration rates far worse for minorities. Black people are imprisoned at six times the rate of White people in the United States; Latinos are imprisoned at three times the rate. In the U.S., one out of every ten Black men in his thirties is in prison or jail on any given day. One in three Black men born today can expect to be incarcerated in his lifetime.
Why are we as a people hell-bent on putting people, especially minority people, in jail? The best evidence I’ve been able to garner is that we have overstressed law and order. That certainly was one pf President Donald Trump’s priorities. And we are determined to punish rather than rehabilitate. We have few alternatives to prison for those found guilty, even of a non-violent crime.
Other advanced nations of the world have long since moved away from massive incarceration. It is well past time for us the grow up as a country and join other responsible western democracies in reducing our prison populations and curbing our willingness to put people in jail. As a first step, we should immediately ban for-profit privately owned prisons. Making money from depriving people of their freedom is revolting. We are better than that.
Let’s agree to mature. Just as we need to join the advanced nations of the world in ridding ourselves of firearms—we have more guns than people—so also do we need to reduce incarceration to a civilized level.
What will it take for us to learn? Let’s do it.