Main point: U.S. Prison populations are growing, and there is no smoking gun or a clearly-identified simple solution.
Each Friday, C-SPAN’s “America By the Numbers” segment features information from the federal statistical system. This week they did a program on the U.S. Prison Population.
Mostly, they confirmed what I already knew…
The American prison system is growing rapidly due to the fact that there is money to be made in it on many levels. The plot on the right shows the % of US population jailed at 0.22% in 1980 and at 0.76% in 2007. In other words, it more than tripled.
Many libertarians will tell you that the war on drugs is at the core of the problem. It seems that it is part of the problem but not at the core of it. Only 20% of prison inmates are there for drug offenses. However, there is a more powerful but indirect effect of the war on drugs seen in longer sentences for more violent or property crimes if the criminal has a prior record (often due to a minor drug offense).
Of course, the C-SPAN program also highlighted the well-known race imbalance. Black males are imprisoned at 6.5 times the rate of white males. One new interesting statistic I learned is that there is a bit more racial equality among women in that black women are imprisoned at 3 times the rate of white women.
By the way, for people that are unclear about the distinction between jails and prisons… A jail is for short sentences or just for holding people that are awaiting trial. A prison is the long-term cage that most of these financial discussions are center around.