America's Mass Incarceration Problem By the Numbers

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. That includes 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 highest 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, with 138,000 of those not convicted and 40,000 of those convicted.

Although violent offenders represent 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 is incarcerated for a non-violent drug offense, making drug-related crimes the target of many discussions as to why the prison system is so overburdened.

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

When one breaks down the statics by state, we learn that the top 10 states for persons incarcerated per 100,000 residents are Louisiana, Oklahoma, Alabama, Mississippi, Arizona, Arkansas, Texas, Missouri, Georgia, and Florida. The state with the least incarcerated citizens is Maine.

Despite the gravity of the state of the country’s prison system, there is some good news in 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 delinquents 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 at a rate of 2.5 times more likely to be incarcerated than their white peers.

Men represent a much higher population of incarcerated people compared to women. 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 compared to the rate 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 is far from having the world’s highest population, there are a lot of people in jail. Non-violent drug offenders and people of color are disproportionally overrepresented, and women are committing more crimes than ever before. Yet, thanks to the hard work of policymakers and the 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.