The Facts about American Prisons

Separating economic myths from economic truths


Editor's Note: Reason columnist and Mercatus Center economist Veronique de Rugy appears weekly on Bloomberg TV to separate economic fact from economic myth.

Myth 1: Incarceration rates in the U.S. are comparable to the rates in other industrial countries.

Fact 1: U.S. incarceration rates are significantly larger than those in any other liberal democracy.

In 2009, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were 1,524,513 prisoners in state and federal prisons in the United States. When local jails are included, the total climbs to 2,284,913. These numbers are not just staggering; they are far above those of any other liberal democracy in both absolute and per capita terms. The International Centre for Prison Studies at King's College, London calculates that the United States has an incarceration rate of 743 per 100,000 people, compared to 325 in Israel, 217 in Poland, 154 in England and Wales, 96 in France, 71 in Denmark, and 32 in India.

America's enormously high incarceration rate is a relatively recent phenomenon. According to a 2010 report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), U.S. incarceration rates between 1880 and 1970 ranged from about 100 to 200 prisoners per 100,000 people. After 1980, however, the inmate population began to grow much more rapidly than the overall population, climbing from about 220 per 100,000 in 1980 to 458 in 1990, 683 in 2000, and 753 in 2008.

Myth 2: The rise in the incarceration rate reflects a commensurate rise in crime.

Fact 2: Crime rates have collapsed.

Why are American incarceration rates so high by international standards, and why have they increased so much during the last three decades? The simplest explanation would be that the rise in the incarceration rate reflects a commensurate rise in crime. But according to data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), the total number of violent crimes was only about 3 percent higher in 2008 than it was in 1980, while the violent crime rate was much lower: 19 per 1,000 people in 2008 vs. 49.4 in 1980. Meanwhile, the BJS data shows that the total number of property crimes dropped to 134.7 per 1,000 people in 2008 from 496.1 in 1980. The growth in the prison population mainly reflects changes in the correctional policies that determine who goes to prison and for how long.

Mandatory minimum sentencing laws enacted in the 1980s played an important role. According to the CEPR study, nonviolent offenders make up more than 60 percent of the prison and jail population. Nonviolent drug offenders now account for about one-fourth of all inmates, up from less than 10 percent in 1980. Much of this increase can be traced back to the "three strikes" bills adopted by many states in the 1990s. The laws require state courts to hand down mandatory and extended periods of incarceration to people who have been convicted of felonies on three or more separate occasions. The felonies can include relatively minor crimes such as shoplifting.

Myth 3: The drop in violent crimes is the result of "tough on crime" policies, particularly expanded prison sentences.

Fact 3: Only a small share of the drop in violent crime is the result of expanded incarceration.

For many, America's soaring incarceration rate and the drop in crime that began 20 years ago are connected. The theory is that if you punish people and make it very costly to commit a crime (expand incarceration), they will have an incentive to live a more virtuous life.

A good question then is whether or not tough sentences have accomplished this? Research by the Pew Center on the States suggests that expanded incarceration accounts for about 25 percent of the drop in violent crime that began in the mid-1990s—leaving the other 75 percent to be explained by things that have nothing to do with keeping people locked up.

If it wasn't incarceration, what caused the drop?

As Reason contributing editor Radley Balko explains, "There is no shortage of theories: Scholars have pointed to everything from the legalization of abortion to the prohibition of lead-based paints. Other theories credit America's aging population (the vast majority of criminals are under 30), President Bill Clinton's program to put more cops on the street, and either stronger gun control laws or an increase in gun carrying by law-abiding Americans."

He concludes:

More likely, crime scholars argue, we probably have less crime now not because of any anti-crime initiatives dreamed up by academics and politicians but because civil society has quietly churned out benefits independent of those policies. Basically, we are wealthier and the opportunity cost of being incarcerated is high at all level of income.

On that point, it is also worth reading this great piece by Reason Senior Editor Tim Cavanaugh about the drop in New York City's crime rate.

Contributing Editor Veronique de Rugy is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

NEXT: Crime Labs and the Confrontation Clause

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. One important fact to note is that the prison population is something like 70% non-White; the USA overall is something like 30% non-White. So part of what’s behind these numbers is that the USA has very large ethnic minorities compared to other nations, particularly Black, and some of those minorities get sent to prison at a much, much higher rate than the majority group. (Another thing to note, though, is that even if you look only at White males, the US still has a really high incarceration rate.)

    That only explains the “what”, though, not the “why”. One thing I haven’t seen which I’d like to see is a trend of the racial demographics of prison over time. It seems unlikely the US suddenly started getting a lot more racist starting around 1980. It also seems really unlikely that Black Americans started committing a lot more crime around 1980. The most plausible thing seems that sentencing for some crimes, particularly the kinds that Black Americans were more likely to be convicted of, got a lot harsher, but I don’t have any real answers…

    1. I’ll venture to guess that the combined wars on poverty/drugs have a lot to do with these trends. Black males growing up without fathers, and often with mothers who don’t value education, find a way to stick it to the man while making money in the drug trade. Their academic records, as well as prison records, have gotten far worse ever since the liberals decided to ‘save’ them from poverty.

      1. I disagree with the idea that liberals trying to help causes these problems. You need to look at the larger picture to start seeing the faults. And there are so many, of such grand scale, that they cant possibly be covered simply by welfare. Its not possible. Some? yes. All? Most? No.
        Seriously, that war on drugs is killing us all. Some people will say that legalizing this stuff wont get much money. This is true. Where the money would be saved is in the reduced number of prisons, taxpayer-funded police working prisons, and the ridiculous costs of incarcerating. Death row is even worse, with california costing millions per person executed.

        And yeah, since these arrests focus so heavily on minority communities, the community cant get itself up off its feat once a third of the population has a felony.

        Think of all the real violent offenders we could try with that money. Think of the sudden and immediate collapse of all the black market forces that profit from illegal drugs.

        If we blanket legalized, it would put criminal cartels in such a state of shock that we would be able to wipe them out with action against their suddenly moneyless leaders.

        And of course, anyone selling drugs isnt paying taxes. No one would buy street drugs if you could buy regulated ones instead. Those folks would get real jobs, jobs where you dont have to worry about being arrested and losing it all.

        Im a democrat, and believe that democratic fiscal policies work. (Im not gonna argue this, Im just trying to be up front.) I see the huge amount of good that it could do — my city has power lines that get ripped out by tornados every year, but wont pay to install underground wires. In 2007 i had 50 weeks of power…Thats 2 less than there are in a year.

        With so many problems of such huge scales, like our crumbling infrastructure, its monstrous that we keep doing this.

        I dont see any good reason my tax money should go toward incarcerating non-violent offenders of things that shouldnt be crimes. And it costs a lot, and will always do so unless you want to ban appeals (A bad idea.)

        This is more than any one presidents or party’s fault. This is a systemic fault, a fault thats propagated decade after decade through both sides, and its horrific. no one will change going easier, because theyll be called “weak on crime.”

        Prohibition didnt work and wont work now. Its fialing. Its draining all our money.

        1. Yeah on the infrastructure spending thing. The current Prez told me if I gave him $800B+ he would stop bridges from falling and killing people during their morning commute and then he spent it all on “Green Jobs” instead of highways, bridges, New Orleans Levees, etc.

        2. I’m with you entirely on ending the war on drugs but think your view of infrastructure spending might be optimistic. The best current analogy I can think of is highway and education spending, whereby the federal government threatens to withhold the states allowance if they don’t behave themselves.

  2. Veronique’s expression in the youtube still frame is pretty fucking metal.

    1. That screen needs more graphics.

  3. Issue: High incarceration rates.

    Primary mechanism: anti-recreational drug policies. Social driving force: Political capital, social hysteria; Economic driving force: taxes channeled to law enforcement / prison systems. This is a social error; society would do better with the vast majority of those people in the work force, buying legal recreational drugs. Prisons do not put any additional shoulders to the wheel of progress, quite the contrary. This is not rocket science.

    Issue: Lower crime rates.

    Primary mechanism: The drooling masses are sufficiently entertained (Internet, television, film, video games, availability of porn), they are also well fed and adequately housed.

    Also not rocket science. Improve the situation further, crime will decline even further. Has nothing at *all* to do with incarceration rate.

    1. Did not the article state that only 10% of prisoners are non-violent drug offenders? This was a surprising figure for me – I figured it would be higher. It seems the libertarian notion that our high incarceration rates reflect our poor drug policy is exaggerated, almost to the point that it may have been propaganda from the start.

      For some reason libertarians share with liberals the idea that prisoners should be treated kindly. I do not agree. Criminals should at the minimum be used as a source of labor/revenue for the state.

      1. We are far too leninet with prisoners; a system like this would be preferable:…

        1. It appears that you inadvertently linked to the wrong video.

          I fixed it for you :

  4. Did not waste the time to read or watch, thank you. Don’t know why you keep featuring this crazy, lying bitch.

    1. Where is your proof that Veronique is crazy and/or a liar?

    2. Whenever I read an ad hominem/logic-deficient post like this, I’m reminded of what one of our conservatrolls once wrote about Veronique.

      Veronique de Rugy – who is this clown, must be French with a name like that. Crawl back into your institutional echo chamber with your theory’s and numbers.

    3. Edward this is what, your 17th handle? Get a life already.

  5. More proof the Neo-Cons’ & Progressives’ “War On Drugs” is a complete and utter failure!

  6. Point 3 seems like pure speculation. This vague “research by the Pew Center” should, at the very least, be linked, if not more thoroughly addressed in Veronique’s analysis.

    Other than that, I like reading the first two points.

    1. I agree that point 3 is unsubstantiated and needs more work but I agree with the point’s premise, length of sentencing is not the primary driver behind reduction in violent crime.

      I am curious to know if the unemployment rate change for 18-29 year olds from 2008-2012 nationally will correlate with violent crime rates for the same population. Or if you’ll see more mid-managers doing the old murder-suicide dance following MM’s canning?

  7. I have a couple of significant problems with this article from a purely analytical viewpoint; The first two charts aren’t comparing anything even vaguely similar. The first is an broad international overview that makes no allowance for any other factors while the second is simply crime rates over time and completely leaves out recidivist rates, severity, reporting issues and so on.

    They are still shining jewels of analysis compared to the third chart which is apparently just an opinion poll of why people don’t commit crimes or something.

    The topic is certainly worth debate and I agree that the US justice system keeps far too many imprisoned for too long, while failing to properly punish many violent offenders; but this article does a poor job of arguing anything.

  8. Why presume incarceration is automatically a bad thing per se? Such an article makes it look as though Libertarians like taking the side of the criminals. Then again historical incarcerations rates have always been low – people couldn’t support an idle population instead they preferred corporal punishment, mutilation, enslavement and death. Similarly, do these numbers also take into account all people who have been incarcerated per se? In other words, this survey is putting the petty thief who does a month in jail on par a murderer doing life?

    On the other hand, I would much prefer jail time for dangerous offenders than a slap of the wrist. This is a seriuos problem in other Western countries – criminals are put out into the streets earlier because their rights override the victims’ rights.

    1. I do automatically take the side of the criminal if their crime was puffing on a joint.

  9. 1. Juxtapose the crime rate by year graph with the introduction of mandatory sentencing, and zero tolerance policies.
    2.A very small number of people account for NEARLY all the crime; so longer sentences for those folks will bring down crime rates dramatically; more than I believe coming from the PEW research center.
    3. The people who committ murder, robbery, burglary, are in fact the same folks who break into cars, spray paint train cars, supposed nuscance(sp) crimes. So arresting someone for a lesser crime may in fact stop more serious crime.
    3. The incarceration of street level dealers may seem extreme to the legalize pot crowd (which I am one), but go get a dime bag in inner city Baltimore, Chicago, Philly; and tell me these are just kids selling a few joints. These are future criminals getting their feet wet on their way up to bigger (more violent) and better paying crime!!

    Just something to think about,

  10. I discussed this on my blog. It’s understandable that people are reluctant to roll back the prison population, coming off of the devastating crime wave of 1965-1993, when homicide rates spiked. Imprisoning nonviolent drug offenders is probably not useful to this end.

    The other important thing to remember is that US incarceration is higher because US crime is higher. It isn’t all the government’s doing.

  11. This article is bullshit…

    The current “American police
    state” is due to increased
    budget and technology, which
    accounts for easier incarceration…


    1. Well, wouldn’t the European statistics also reflect that, if such reductionism could be done about this issue?

      Part of the reason that incarceration has jumped is the simple fact that since the 80’s a lot more things started to be prosecuted which hadn’t in the past. William Bratton’s policing methods gradually became the model that many American cities followed, i.e. proactive “broken window” policing.

  12. Wow.. 😀 i know it.. 😀

  13. Why are American incarceration rates so high by international standards, and why have they increased so much during the last three decades? The simplest explanation would be that the rise in the incarceration rate reflects a commensurate rise in crime.

    1. Chinabot’s moved into crystals now? I must say, he’s quite the little entrepreneur.

  14. I would much prefer jail time for dangerous offenders than a slap of the wrist. This is a seriuos problem in other Western countries i like this post very much.

  15. Maybe the rise in prison populations CAUSED the drop in crime rates? Maybe we put the potential criminals behind bars, where they couldn’t commit crimes? Nah, that couldn’t be it.

    1. or, you can read the artical Which Specifically states why that is not the reason

  16. The US has more prisoners per capita than any other country in the world. This includes such “bastions of freedom” as Russia, Iran, and The Chinese People’s Republic. No other country in the world even comes close to the USA in prisoners per capita. We are indeed the “Colonel Klink” of the world…

  17. Why are American incarceration rates so high by international standards, and why have they increased so much during the last three decades? The simplest explanation would be that the rise in the incarceration rate reflects a commensurate rise in crime.

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