Friday , April 19 2024
mass incarceration

America’s Mass Incarceration Problem by the Numbers

It’s no secret that the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Here’s how it breaks down.

There are approximately 323.1 million people living in the U.S. As of 2017, there are more than 2.3 million people incarcerated in American jails. Those include 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 901 juvenile facilities, 3,163 local jails, and 76 Indian county jails. Others are held in an assortment of civil, immigration and military detention centers.

The biggest category of offenders in state prisons is violent offenders. Out of 704,000 violent offenders, 174,000 are in for murder, and 165,000 are in for rape and sexual assault. The next highest category in state prisons is, surprisingly, not drug offenders. It is property offenders, such as those serving time for theft and fraud.

In local jails, the vast majority of offenders are waiting for trial. Out of 630,000 inmates in local jails, 443,000 have not been convicted. Here, again, violent crimes outstrip other offenses; 138,000 of those not convicted have been accused of violent crimes, and 40,000 of those convicted were found guilty of violent offenses.

Although violent offenders constitute the highest populations in prisons and property offenders come in second, one cannot ignore the part that drug offenses play in the system. One in five inmates are incarcerated for a non-violent drug offense, making drug-related crimes the subject of frequent discussions and efforts at reforming the overburdened prison system.

Sadly, race too seems to play a prominent role in prison populations. There are more black people in prisons than whites. In fact, black Americans are incarcerated (at the state level) 5.1 times more than whites, despite the U.S. having a 63.7 percent white population to a 12.2 percent black population. Oklahoma, which is only 7.7 percent black, incarcerates the most black people per capita, at a rate of 2,625 per 100,000.

When one breaks down the statics by state, we learn that the 10 states with the highest rates of incarceration are Louisiana, Oklahoma, Alabama, Mississippi, Arizona, Arkansas, Texas, Missouri, Georgia, and Florida. The state with the fewest incarcerated citizens per capita is Maine.

Despite the poor state the country’s prison system, there is some good news amid the most recent prison statistics. The number of incarcerated youth peaked in 2000 and has since been on the decline. In fact, between 2001 and 2013, the number of juvenile offenders in prison facilities fell from 76,262 to 35,659. The drop is attributed to years of reform and policy changes in the juvenile justice system. However, despite the drop, black youth are still overrepresented in the juvenile system. They are 2.5 times more likely to be incarcerated than their white peers.

The vast majority of incarcerated people are men. There are about 111,000 women in the U.S. prison system, but that number has been on the upswing in recent years. Since 1980, the rate of incarcerated females has climbed 50 percent higher than the rate of increase for men. Sadly, the majority of female inmates come into the system after experiencing a history of physical and sexual abuse. HIV and substance abuse problems are prevalent among female inmates, and, in keeping with the trend in the other categories of the prison population, black women are twice as likely to be incarcerated compared to white women.

What do these statistics tell us? For a democratic nation that’s not even close to having the world’s highest population, there are a lot of people in jail. Non-violent drug offenders and people of color are disproportionally over-represented, and women are committing more crimes than ever before. Yet, thanks to the hard work of policymakers and organizations and individuals pressing for change, the dramatic decline in incarcerated youth is encouraging. Clearly the prison system has a long way to go, but small victories mean there is hope for a more balanced system in the future.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to The Huffington PostNew York Daily News, and Prison Legal News. He can be found online at and

About Christopher Zoukis

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the author of the Federal Prison Handbook., Prison Education Guide, and College for Convicts. He is currently a law student at the University of California, Davis School of Law, where he is a Criminal Law Association and Students Against Mass Incarceration board member, and a research editor for the Social Justice Law Review. Learn more about him at Federal Prison Consultants.

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