If Every American State Was a Country, Which Would Have the World's Highest Incarceration Rate?

Mass incarceration, nation by nation.



If you're a regular Reason reader, you probably know that the U.S. has the world's highest incarceration rate. Cuba comes second, then Rwanda, Russia, and the rest. But what if we treated each individual state as an independent nation and stacked them all up against the rest of the world? Which place would prove most prone to locking people up?

The Prison Policy Initiative has put together a pretty amazing chart answering just that question. First place turns out to go to Louisiana, which locks up 1,341 people for every 100,000 residents. (The figure includes inmates in federal prisons and local jails.) Thirty-five other states have incarceration rates that beat the Cubans', as does the District of Columbia.

The least prison-happy state? Vermont. You can head down to the comments to debate whether that's because it's full of soft-hearted hippies or if it's just that all those old people there don't commit as many crimes.

Bonus link: Our special issue on mass incarceration.

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  1. We obviously have a very serious problem and hundreds of thousands in jail that probably shouldn’t be there, but I do not like this constant refrain that we have more in prison than China, etc. No, we don’t. We’re still a relatively open society, so our numbers are mostly accurate. Does anyone in their right mind think we’re getting good statistics from authoritarian regimes or have enough data to make an independent assessment?

    1. If victimless crimes were eliminated, this probably wouldn’t even be a discussion.

      1. The real argument lies in persuading idiots that victimless crimes are victimless.

        No, I don’t hurt anyone around me by having a drink after work. No, I don’t kill the neighbor’s child by smoking a joint, and no, I don’t rape people every time I choose to do a line.

        1. No, I don’t hurt anyone around me by having a drink after work.


          No, I don’t kill the neighbor’s child by smoking a joint,

          Depends on where you buy your weed.

          and no, I don’t rape people every time I choose to do a line.

          Depends on where you buy your blow.

          1. No, it doesn’t depend on any of those things.

          2. Debatable.

            No, its really not.

            Depends on where you buy your weed.

            Depends on where you buy your blow.

            Category error. The claim was that anon doesn’t kill children or rape people after sparking up or doing a line. Whether he does or not is not affected, I am sure, by where he buys the stuff.

      2. If victimless crimes were eliminated, this probably wouldn’t even be a discussion.

        No question.

      3. So I did the math on the prison population, and counting those places where most of us agree people should be in prison (robbery, rape, assault, murder) and pre-trial detention, you can take away 1,057,300 from that number. So it’s time we started being more fair here.

        1. Also, this is such bullshit:

          “But given the sheer size of the federal prison system alone ? larger than the total prison population of every nation on the planet except for seven (China, Russian Federation, Brazil, India, Thailand, Mexico, and Iran)”

          Per Prison Policy’s “pie”, 216,362 people are in federal prison. That’s more than the rest of the world? Horseshit.

          1. Oh, the poor ‘mercuns are being so unfairly characterized. Go ahead and keep inhaling the American exceptionalism narcotic.

            1. *Inhales Deeply* Yeah, still feels good.

            2. Facts are facts, dipshit. I don’t bend facts because they’re politically convenient; that’s for statists like you.

              1. Yes, facts are facts and the USSA, the great socialist police state, incarcerates more people both in absolute and proportional terms.

                1. But I think his point is that our for-profit welfare-socialist prison system is able to account for every prisoner because more prisoners is more profit. Where is the profit incentive to report more prisoners in those other countries?

                  There’s an iron law in here somewhere. Maybe.

                  1. You think so?

                2. Shut up, LM. Seriously, your stance might get more sympathy if you didn’t whine so badly every time your faith gets questioned. The fact is that Prison Policy got it wrong on the federal numbers.

                  1. Stance? Facts, my boy, facts.

                    How about looking at the trends? Since 1970, according to the ACLU’s citation of the Pew Charitable Trust’s Public Safety Performance Project, the American prison population has exploded by 700% since 1970.

                    Can the same be said of Mother Russia’s prison population?

                    How about the Chi-comms?

                3. Actually most of their “prisoners” probably go to the gulag archipelago where they aren’t counted as prisoners. Kind of like most Chinese prisoners are actually in “eduction” camps, not prisons.

                4. Note, LibertyMike, that the claim isn’t about the total prison population, but the federal prison population.

          2. I read that as saying that there are more people in Federal prison than in any individual countries prison system with the listed exceptions. Is that still horseshit in your estimation?

          3. Why do we even have a federal prison system AT ALL? Exactly what crimes, other than treason, are spelled out in the constitution? Since we have so much bullshit federal law enforcement, that does indeed make the United States a police state.

        2. counting those places where most of us agree people should be in prison (robbery, rape, assault, murder) and pre-trial detention, you can take away 1,057,300 from that number

          Can you elaborate a bit? You do not make it very clear why you say that you can subtract that many.

      4. At least we lock people up v. shooting them in the head alongside the road.

        1. Um, we actually shoot them along side the road too, but only when the shooter wants a paid vacation while the incident is “investigated”.

    2. “China, though . . . well, 1.5 million prisoners is just the official figure. Chinese human rights activist Harry Wu, who spent 19 years in forced-labor camps for criticizing the government, estimates that 16 to 20 million of his countrymen are incarcerated, including common criminals, political prisoners, and people in involuntary job placements. Even ten million prisoners would make for a rate of 793 per 100,000.”…..population

      I think you’re on to something.

      1. And that doesn’t count the number who have been executed, or just have been disappeared.

      2. That seems somewhat higher than the U.S., huh?

        It’s absurd to take these figures at face value, leaving aside entirely the many more in such countries who have about the same number of rights as someone in prison.

        Again, we’re fucked up, but let’s keep some perspective and not recirculate bullshit, okay?

      3. The Straight Dope is hardly a blueberry diesel strain of truth.

        What about the Chinese chap who chirps, “the two million plus ‘is just the official figure'” with regard to the number of USSA prisoners?

        1. Black sites! Tinfoil! Fringey flags!

    3. Perhaps. It is problematic that they can game the system to make them comparable.

    4. Does anyone in their right mind think we’re getting good statistics from authoritarian regimes or have enough data to make an independent assessment?

      Not to mention the whole non-sequitur about how ‘free’ in China means ‘free to have your land seized and home bulldozed’ whereas incarcerated pretty well guarantees it won’t be.

      I’d rather be incarcerated in a US prison than free to live in N. Korea.

      1. Very good point worth mentioning; given the false dichotomy, I’d rather rot in a US jail than live free in most of those countries.

    5. OK, take out the authoritarian regimes and the 35 remaining countries are still all miniscule compared to the US.

  2. This chart depressed me. Imagine how low our crime rates would be if we didn’t imprison people for bullshit.

    1. “It’s *illegal*! Our hands are *tied*!”

    2. Peer at the chart again. Seems like the most successful states during this economy are the ones putting shit birds in jail. Just say’in.

  3. Reason, you and your commenting system can go to hell. Jesus Christ.

    1. IMO, it wasn’t a problem (OK, that’s a lie) until they started saying, “Weigh in in the comments section.” and “Let us know by commenting.” Then it became really fuc*ing irritating.

      1. Can you name another site that has this kind of problem? Let’s just get it over with and go to Disqus.

        1. No. Disqus sucks.

          1. Right, cause this is SO MUCH better. Disqus has never, IME, crashed. It archives all of your comments, which makes them searchable. I’ve never seen Disqus nuke an entire day’s worth of comments.

            1. That’s because Disqus sells all your information.

              1. So? We’re libertarians! Google does that too and I still use gmail, google maps, etc.

                1. Oh, I’m well aware. I just think that moving to Disqus would drive a significant number of people away from commenting.

                  1. Yes.

                  2. Why? Dummy e-mail address and dummy name. Not difficult.

                    1. Why? Dummy e-mail address and dummy name. Not difficult.

                      It’s still another barrier to entry, though.

                      I, for one, am far too lazy to put that much effort into arguing on the internet.

                    2. That’s what you had to do to register here! It’s the same step.

            2. Disqus also doesn’t work on any machine I run. I’ve never managed to get it to so much as display comments.

              1. I’ve had problems with it not loading or, at least, hanging. Bet it wouldn’t work well here.

              2. Disqus is a severe memory hog with Opera (at lest, Presto-based Opera; I don’t know about Crome-based since I’ll switch to Firefox before a Google-based browser.)

            3. Disqus sucks ass.

              1. Fine, pick literally any other system and it will work better than this.

        2. I’d rather go to the magazine’s headquarters and use a thumbtack to stick my comments on a cork bulletin board, than use Discus.

          1. That would still be more efficient and less aggravating.

        3. This is libertarian government!
          If it doesn’t work. Well, it doesn’t work. Go to another site. We do what we want and our budget is limited by what the Koch’s say.

          But, please, elect the pols and others we finance and stand behind because, unlike us, they know how to run things. I promise – Koch’s Honor!

          Where is Rand Paul when you need him? Just as with his medical license, he could create a new certificate on “certified web site operator” and award it to the Reason staff. Therefore, they could claim the best IT staff in the nation!

      2. Can you name another site that has this kind of problem? Let’s just get it over with and go to Disqus.

        Ironically, this is my third time trying to submit this comment.

          1. See, the squirrels were looking out for us by preventing your triple-post.

            1. How can we be sure the third post didn’t end up cross-posted to another unrelated article?

              1. Maybe that’s where the real third season of BSG went too.

  4. When you start getting down towards the bottom of the list, do these places not have much crime? Do they let crime go unpunished? Do they just execute people instead of jailing them? What gives?

    1. Not to be a gadfly, but it might be interesting (in a oh-shit way) to compare the chart to say, race or average income.

      1. You saying that there aren’t many poor black people in Maine and Vermont?

        That’s… That’s…. *sputter* … Accurate!

        1. I mean, yeah, the black population can either be fodder for Reason types or Sailer types, but it’s factual either way.

        2. I’m from Louisiana, and I’ve been to the Angola prison rodeo. In the section where they let prisoners view the rodeo, it was 99% blacks with white prison guards holding shotguns.

          Something just didn’t feel right about the whole thing and it gave me the creeps.

    2. In the case of Utah, I hear they have a readjustment process involving clean underwear, straitjackets, toothpicks, and lots of aversion therapy.

      1. They’re going to try that in SF, also:

        “Laura’s Law appears headed for adoption in S.F.”
        …”compel mentally ill people into treatment”……..573727.php

        1. I can’t wait until they come for the City Council.

  5. So note number 1 presents a problem:

    In the case of state prison systems that send a large number of people to prisons in other states, or in the context of federal prisons, this Census Bureau residence determination can influence a state’s incarceration rate calculated with that data. But given the sheer size of the federal prison system alone * * * it wouldn’t be appropriate to exclude this population from our data. And while it is the federal government, rather than individual states, that determines how federal criminal laws are written and enforced, state politics certainly influence whether and where federal prisons are built.

    Part of the consideration on where federal prisons get built is cost, which means your places like Louisiana are going to get stuff like this because it’s a form of welfare.

  6. VT has open gun laws and decrim weed. Boom. Lawyered.

    1. Maybe it’s because all the heroin addicts are too nodded out to go and steal.

      Sure, you get constitutional carry, weed, and low imprisonment, but it’s still the People’s Republic of Vermont.

      1. If you look at the reasons for incarceration across all the states, most are for guns, drugs, or both. VT doesn’t have the same kind of laws as other states that would put people in jail for those reasons, therefore their incarceration rate is low. Not rocket science, and nothing to do with the state’s overall economic freedom, which sucks.

        1. I think it’s more that if you’re not in Burlington you’re probably 20 miles from the nearest cop, so de facto everything is legal.

          1. Or Brattleboro. They have some cops there.

          2. There’s a cop in Rutland.

        2. Assuming “economic freedom” is a code word for being able to dump shit in the water, air or earth and not ask anyone beforehand, you are certainly correct. That’s why China has such freedom.

          Unfortunately, such freedoms don’t protect us from cancer, respiratory disease, birth defects and many other things.

          That’s a great propaganda term “economic freedom”. I noticed that China (Hong Kong) scores at the top.

          Are guns and weed legal in Hong Kong? Must be…..

  7. If I hadn’t been born here, there’s no way I would move here voluntarily.

    1. I’m moving from the People’s Republic of Cascadia to Louisiana in a few years and I can hardly wait…

  8. First among Americans means first in the world.

    Fuck yeah it does.

  9. Can we take up a collection for some new servers?

  10. Lesson: Don’t fuck with a Louisiana jury.

    In PA, we’ve been closing prisons. I guess that’s a good thing.

    1. PA is closing everything. It started with the steel mills.

    2. More candidates for public office.

  11. Has anyone emailed the webmaster about the server problems? Last time, we just bitched about it for a week before Sevo finally let them know. They were unaware.

    1. I sent a couple notes to JD (since he’s the online Editor or some such) and…Mike? or someone.


    2. Nahh I emailed them a polite wtf note on the first day I was getting these problems a while back.

  12. OK, so putting aside the places whose data is probably suspect – yer Chinas and yer Cubers and yer Koreas and the like – it’s still interesting to look at the states versus places whose data I think are probably accurate: yer UK, yer Australia, yes, Japan.

    But, no, with all this, I don’t think there’s another place besides the US that I’d chose to live, given what I like to do for fun (shoot guns, build my own cars and drive ’em really fast, etc.).

    I’ll keep trying to stay out of jail…

    1. That’s the discussion that’s worth having, as we’re way out of line with the rest of the liberal nations.

      1. We are way out of line with the rest of the [communist, progressive, socialist liberal] nations.

      2. I agree hyperbole isn’t needed to show that we lock up much more than is commensurate with our supposed values.

        1. Worse, is the trend. Since 1970, our prison population is up 700%.

          Nuff said.

          1. Sure, relative to our own past and relative to the rest of the liberal nations, we look very bad in this area (and, to my way of thinking, are bad in an absolute sense). And we should be scorned as such. But comparing us to China, which has an abysmal record, is counterproductive.

            1. Counterproductive…to what?

              1. It’s like saying we’re worse than the Nazis. You lose credibility when you say things that aren’t really true. Though some in government may want to be worse than Nazis.

                We get enough denial of reality and obvious facts from the government and its cheerleaders without joining in.

                1. Well, if my friends who do business in China are to be believed, it is much easier to do business in China than in the U.S. Sure, you need to grease a few palms to make things happen, but the time and expense of greasing palms in China is much less than the time and expense of following the rules in many a U.S. state. There’s a reason the Chinese economy is booming, and it’s not lack of freedom.

                  There’s also the freedom to have drink in the street at 4:00 a.m. and get a hooker in a high-end bordello. Technically illegal, I’m sure, but a functional freedom. And I’d rather by functionally free than technically free and practically not free.

                  1. “the time and expense of greasing palms in China is much less than the time and expense of following the rules in many a U.S. state. There’s a reason the Chinese economy is booming, and it’s not lack of freedom.”

                    Uh….so what you are really saying is that putting cash into official’s pockets instead of following environmental and other regs is better for “freedom” . This is exactly why they dump shit into the air, water and land in China with few repercussions.

                    Or, are you going to tell us that after you grease the palms of party members, they insist you do everything cleanly and in an environmentally sound manner??

                    Don’t forget, much of that pollutions ends up over here…

          2. Remind me again, when did the war on drugs start?

            1. Long Long ago, but basically the modern one under Nixon and then put into high gear with Reagan.

              Any more questions?

          3. There is money in it. It’s “economic freedom”. Not really different than the “economic freedom” of being able to grease palms and pollute (cause death and disease) instead of following regs.

    2. “given what I like to do for fun (shoot guns, build my own cars and drive ’em really fast, etc.).”

      Is this you?

      1. busted

        *hangs head*

    3. Yea the UK where someone caught on video sucker punching a 90+yo veteran that needs 2 canes to walk, because he is moving too slow, blinds the veteran & gets community service.

      Where 3rdworld refugees on benefits that rape indigenous kids get lighter sentences than homeowners that hurt home invaders.

      Where a man got arrested for quoting Churchill about muslim savagery, but muslims can call for the end of whites in the UK with no problems(the jihadists that beheaded the soldier in London made a public video to that affect months proir).

  13. I suspect that the “cure” to overincarceration will be indiscriminate release of both violent and nonviolent offenders, followed by a backlash and a new conventional wisdom that releasing criminals is harmful.

    1. They already did that will illegal alien murderers & sex offenders.

  14. Bad link to chart.

  15. Start working at home with Google. It’s a great work at home opportunity. Just work for few hours. I earn up to $100 a day. I can’t believe how easy it was once I tried it out

  16. Well, let’s see.

    The US intentional homicide rate is 4.8 per hundred thousand. The British intentional homicide rate is 1.0 per hundred thousand, so the US has an intentional homicide rate of about 480% of the British.

    Assuming that the rate of “real” (that is, what a libertarian would call real) crimes committed in a society correlates reasonably well to the intentional homicide rate (which we can’t be sure of, but seems a reasonable first cut), I would expect that the US rate of crimes genuinely worthy of imprisonment to be at about 480% of the British, and thus a US incarceration rate of 480% of the British would be, in fact, just as justified as the British rate.

    Using the numbers at the link, the US incarceration rate is, in fact, is 487% of the British rate. That is, so nearly exactly what I would expect that it’s astonishing.

    1. If Chicago was removed from IL the state would have the same murder rate as Finland. Keep in mind the UK gives 3rdworld refugees on benefits lesser sentences for raping indigenous underage girls than for hurting a home invader raping a girl.

  17. Other than a couple exceptions, the incarceration levels in the states seem to line up with “conservatives” locking up more of their populations and “liberals” locking up fewer.

    The top 10-14 all skew quite “free” – the usual suspects.

    Most of the “socialist and liberal” states seem to fall below the average….of the USA, some of them way below (MA, RI, MN, VT)…..

    No, it’s not because of guns.
    It’s simply because states with conservative “free” government tend to be more authoritarian and “law and order” based with the “lock them up and throw away the key”, while liberals tend to look at even the lowest among us as human beings and (often) products of their environment. In other words, we have empathy and compassion and attempt to fix things – even though it is very hard (near impossible).

    However, in the Big Picture, it looks like we are making progress.

    Just another example of why true libertarians should be more on the center-left side of the political spectrum. Free minds, free bodies – and free to breathe clean air and drink clean water too.

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