Home > Uncategorized > The Incarceration Industry – 2 graphs

The Incarceration Industry – 2 graphs

from David Ruccio


As everyone knows (or should know), the United States is an international outlier when it comes to incarceration rates.

According to the Hamilton Project,

The U.S. incarceration rate—defined as the number of inmates in local jails, state prisons, federal prisons, and privately operated facilities per every 100,000 U.S. residents—is more than six times that of the typical Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) country. A variety of factors can explain the discrepancy in incarceration rates. One important factor is higher crime rates, especially rates of violent crimes: the homicide rate in the United States is approximately four times the typical rate among the nations shown in this chart. Additionally, drug control policies in the United States—which have largely not been replicated in other Western countries—have prominently contributed to the rising incarcerated population over the past several decades. Another important factor is sentencing policy; in particular, the United States imposes much longer prison sentences for drug-related offenses than do many economically similar nations.

What that means if there are more than 2 million Americans in prison or jail.

Here’s how the incarceration rate has changed over the past 100-plus years of U.S. history:


  1. mc
    February 13, 2016 at 2:35 pm

    You need two more graphs for the same period–(1) the US crime rate, at least as far back as available (even better, broken down by violent and non-violent, along with drug arrests since drugs are not in the Uniform Crime Report, only violent and property crimes) and (2) rates of probation sentences. You would see that our current crime rates correspond with levels of incarceration from the 1970s and that the incarceration rates correspond with both higher and lower levels of incarceration. Supporters of overincarceration only point to the period linking high incarceration to lower crime and ignore when they were not inverse and when we dealt with crime differently but to same statistical effect.

    What neither they nor the academics/reformers/pundits ever talk about is how the probation rate mirrors and in fact goes beyond the incarceration line in the graphs. That would force the said overincarceraters and the “conventional wisdom” to explain why probation wasn’t the preferred policy of the period since it correlated as well or better than the increased prisons. The answer, of course, is correlated with political power and increased resources for the overincarceraters, but that is accidental since all they’re interested in is public safety after all, as shown by the period where the crime rate line and incarceration line are inverse.

    What none of these graphs show is that, if you overlapped the crime rate line with other lines, such as divorce rates, teen pregnancy rates, smoking and other substance abuse rates, etc., that reflect the cultural and generational upheaval of the 1970s through the early 1990s, you would have almost exactly the same graphs as the one with crime rates and incarceration rates. This would point to completely different problem definitions and thus solutions than the vast bulk of what we have done in criminal justice and sentencing reform over these last four decades. Think how many professions, including the academics/reformers/pundits as well as the overincarceraters, would be shown to be blowing little but smoke for over 40 years. The hit to the GDP would be substantial. Best to just move along and pretend we have it all under control, right?

  2. February 13, 2016 at 8:16 pm

    Nixon … and then Reagan.

  3. February 14, 2016 at 3:03 am

    Funny when you look at graphs like these – crime and incarceration rates, poverty rates, GINI index, drug use and sales, inner city gangs, etc. all hell seems to begin to break out about 1975. Is there a reason or reasons for that? larrymotuz says Nixon … and then Reagan. That’s just part of the story. What lead us to Nixon and then Reagan, and then Bush and Clinton and then Bush again? Things that used to be of lesser importance (but not unimportant), like world-wide trade, protecting shareholders, maximizing profits of private companies, reducing funding for education and aid to the poor, destroying the federal budget and government system, attacking labor (unions and all), reducing regulation by government, etc. have now been elevated to the top level of importance. Things that must be done, that must be achieved, that are how we define the soul of America. America has a new morality — or amorality, depending on you vantage point. And it’s enforced by dozens of new laws, by dozens of court decisions, and by dozens of Executive Orders. Hardly surprising that crime and incarceration are up. There are lots of new laws that make lots of new things crimes and lots of eager entrepreneurs who see billions in profits off putting American in prison.

    • February 14, 2016 at 4:11 am

      I fully agree with you, Ken Zimmerman. My ‘shorthand’, so to speak, is about these matters, but may have been too cryptic.

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