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How Many People Are in Prison in the US?

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. As of 2023, there are over 2 million people incarcerated in US federal and state prisons and local jails. This article provides an in-depth look at the latest statistics on the US prison population, trends over time, comparisons to other countries, and the reasons behind the exceptionally high incarceration rate in America.

Current Statistics on the US Prison Population

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were an estimated 1,805,500 prisoners under the jurisdiction of state and federal correctional authorities in the United States at year-end 2020. This includes 1,630,800 prisoners in state prison and 174,700 in federal prisons.

In addition, there were an estimated 721,300 inmates held in locally-operated jails in 2020. Combining the prison and jail populations, there are over 2.5 million people currently incarcerated in the United States.

The American prison population has declined in recent years from its peak of 2.3 million in 2008. However, the current rate of incarceration still remains very high historically and compared to other nations.

Breakdown by Gender

The vast majority of prisoners in the US are male. As of 2020:

  • 1.7 million (93%) of state and federal prisoners were male
  • 136,500 (7%) were female

Among jail inmates in 2020:

  • 589,500 (82%) were male
  • 131,700 (18%) were female

Breakdown by Race and Ethnicity

The imprisonment rate varies widely between racial and ethnic groups in the US:

  • Black Americans are incarcerated at over 5 times the rate of whites
  • Hispanic Americans are incarcerated at nearly 3 times the rate of non-Hispanic whites

The breakdown of state and federal prisoners by race/ethnicity as of 2020 was:

  • 33% White
  • 38% Black or African American
  • 22% Hispanic/Latinx
  • 7% Other

This disparity is particularly striking considering the US population is only about 13% Black.

Historical Trends in US Incarceration Rates

The explosion in the US prison population over the past four decades is unprecedented historically. Since the 1970s, incarceration rates have skyrocketed as a result of harsher sentencing policies like mandatory minimums, longer prison terms, and the War on Drugs.

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Prison Population Over Time

  • In 1972, there were 196,000 prisoners in state and federal institutions. By 2020, the US prison population had grown over 7-fold to 1.8 million.
  • The incarceration rate (prisoners per 100,000 population) grew from 93 per 100,000 in 1972 to a peak of 767 per 100,000 in 2007. It has since declined slightly to 639 per 100,000 in 2020 as incarceration rates started falling.
  • Overall, the US prison population grew rapidly starting in the mid-1970s. Growth accelerated in the 1980s and 1990s due to stringent sentencing policies before peaking in the late 2000s.

Jail Population Over Time

The jail inmate population has followed a similar trajectory to the prison population:

  • In 1970, there were 157,000 jail inmates
  • By 2020, the number of jail inmates had grown nearly 5 times to 721,300
  • The jail incarceration rate peaked at 242 per 100,000 in 2007 before declining to 214 per 100,000 by 2020.

Jails have a much higher turnover rate than prisons, so this is an average daily jail population rather than a cumulative count. But it captures the same trend of exponential growth in incarceration driven by harsher laws and sentencing practices since the 1970s and peaking in the late 2000s.

How Does the US Compare to Other Countries?

The US stands out as the world’s leader in incarceration by a considerable margin. Here is how the US prison population compares to other developed countries:

  • With 639 prisoners per 100,000 population, the US has the highest incarceration rate in the world.
  • This is over 5 times higher than most other liberal democracies. For example, Canada’s rate is 114 per 100,000 and the UK’s is 132 per 100,000.
  • The countries with the next highest rates are El Salvador (564), Turkmenistan (552), and Thailand (541). However, these are authoritarian states without fair justice systems.
  • Among OECD countries, the US incarceration rate in 2020 was nearly 3 times Turkey, which had the next highest rate.

Historically, US incarceration rates were comparable to other nations until the early 1970s. But the prison boom since then has made the US an outlier.

What Factors Drive High Incarceration Rates in the US?

There are several key factors that explain why the United States imprisons people at such exceptionally high rates compared to other countries:

Harsher Sentencing Laws

  • Mandatory minimum sentencing laws force judges to impose overly harsh prison terms for drug and other nonviolent offenses.
  • “Three strikes” laws require automatic life sentences after three felony convictions, even if the offenses are nonviolent.
  • Truth-in-sentencing laws eliminate parole and reduce inmates’ opportunities for early release.

Long Terms for Violent Crimes

  • Aggressive sentencing has led to very long prison terms for violent crimes in the US. For example, the average time served for murder is over 16 years.

War on Drugs

  • Arrests for drug offenses make up over 80% of the growth in the state prison population between 1980 and 2019.
  • Nonviolent drug offenders make up about 20% of state prisoners and 50% of federal prisoners.
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Private Prisons

  • Private, for-profit prisons have fueled mass incarceration incentives in order to maximize profits. Private prisons house 9% of state prisoners and 16% of federal prisoners.

Racial Disparities

  • Racial disparities in sentencing and the disproportionate targeting of minorities for drug enforcement have led to very high imprisonment rates for black and Hispanic Americans.

Poverty and Lack of Resources

  • Poverty, lack of education, limited job prospects, and insufficient mental health and addiction treatment resources contribute to higher rates of incarceration among disadvantaged populations.

What Are the Consequences of Mass Incarceration?

While supporters of tough-on-crime policies argue they are necessary for public safety, experts widely agree that the societal consequences of mass incarceration outweigh any benefits. High incarceration rates have considerable costs:

Financial Costs

  • It is estimated that federal, state, and local governments spend over $80 billion annually on corrections.
  • locks up people who pose little risk to the public, wasting taxpayer money that could be better invested in education, healthcare, and social programs to improve public safety.

Negative Effects on Families and Children

  • Parental incarceration increases family instability, mental health problems, homelessness, and risk of abuse or neglect for children.
  • Incarceration imposes financial hardships on families from court fees, legal costs, and loss of family wages.

Economic and Social Costs

  • Taking people out of their families and communities disrupts positive social relationships and networks.
  • Mass incarceration disproportionately impacts disadvantaged communities, contributing to poverty, unemployment, and worse health and education outcomes.

Recidivism and Future Crime

  • Harsh prison conditions and lack of rehabilitation do not reduce repeat offenses. About 68% of state prisoners are rearrested within 3 years of release.

Recent Reforms to Reduce Incarceration Rates

In response to the mounting social and economic costs of mass incarceration, both state and federal policymakers have made some reforms to reduce prison populations in recent years:

  • Reduced Sentencing for Drug Crimes: At the federal level and in many states, mandatory minimum sentences have been shortened or eliminated for some drug offenses. Some states have legalized marijuana, leading to fewer incarcerations.
  • Juvenile Justice Reforms: States have limited juvenile life without parole sentences. Some states have raised the age at which juveniles can be tried as adults.
  • Reduced Prison Terms: Truth-in-sentencing laws have been relaxed by some states to allow greater use of parole and earlier releases for good behavior.
  • Alternatives to Incarceration: Some jurisdictions use more alternatives like probation, diversion programs, or split sentences (part jail, part probation). But these remain underutilized.
  • Bail Reforms: More localities are eliminating cash bail for nonviolent defendants who cannot afford it, reducing pretrial detentions.

While these represent steps in the right direction, most experts agree that bolder policy changes will be needed to make serious cuts to mass incarceration. Key recommendations include:

The key US prison population data:

StatisticNumber
Total incarcerated in US prisons and jails1.9 million
Incarceration rate per 100,000 residents600
In federal prisons183,000
In state prisons1.2 million
In local jails600,000
Incarcerated for drug offenses (federal)Around 90,000
Incarcerated for violent crime (state)Around 700,000
In private prisons115,000
Incarcerated decline since 2000 peakAround 400,000 fewer

Breakdown by Race and Ethnicity

The imprisonment rate varies widely between racial and ethnic groups in the US:

  • Black Americans are incarcerated at over 5 times the rate of whites
  • Hispanic Americans are incarcerated at nearly 3 times the rate of non-Hispanic whites
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The breakdown of state and federal prisoners by race/ethnicity as of 2020 was:

Race/EthnicityPercentage of Prison Population
White33%
Black or African American38%
Hispanic/Latinx22%
Other7%

Conclusion and Outlook

In summary, with over 2 million people behind bars, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Driven by harsh sentencing laws, the War on Drugs, and systemic racial inequalities, US prison populations have grown at an unprecedented pace since the 1970s. The societal and economic costs of locking up so many people are enormous.

Recent criminal justice reforms have started to reduce incarceration rates at both the state and federal level. However, the US has a long way to go to unwind mass incarceration and bring its imprisonment rates in line with other liberal democracies. Fundamental reforms to sentencing policies, mandatory minimums, and the criminalization of drug and other nonviolent offenses will be necessary to make further meaningful reductions to the world’s largest prison population.

With political will and public pressure to reverse the failed experiment that is mass incarceration, the trend of high imprisonment that has dominated America for nearly 50 years could potentially be reversed. But it will require major changes in how the justice system and public officials think about and respond to crime in America.

Frequently Asked Questions

What percentage of federal inmates are incarcerated for drug offenses?

According to the Bureau of Prisons, 46.3% of federal prisoners are incarcerated for drug offenses as of 2022. This includes inmates sentenced for trafficking as well as possession.

What percentage of inmates are incarcerated for violent crimes?

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 53% of state prisoners in 2020 were serving time for violent offenses such as murder, sexual assault, robbery and aggravated assault. Among federal prisoners, 13.8% were incarcerated for violent crimes.

What percentage of inmates are incarcerated for property crimes like burglary?

In 2020, 17% of state prisoners were incarcerated for property crimes like burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft, fraud and arson. Among federal prisoners, 6.8% were serving time for property offenses.

What percentage of prisoners are serving life sentences?

As of 2020, 53,290 state and federal prisoners were serving life sentences. This equates to about 2.9% of the total US prison population. An additional 44,311 prisoners (2.4% ) were serving life sentences without the possibility of parole.

How much does it cost to incarcerate each prisoner?

The average cost to house an inmate in state prison in 2020 was $33,274 per year, according to the Vera Institute of Justice. In some states like New York and California, the average annual cost per prisoner exceeds $60,000. The high costs of incarceration impose a major financial burden on states.

Sources:

Bureau of Justice Statistics

The Sentencing Project

Vera Institute of Justice

Pew Research Center

Prison Inside Team

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

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