U.S. Prison Population

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.

0 thoughts on “U.S. Prison Population

  1. Anon

    The most probable solution at the federal and state level is to decriminalize drug use. That would reduce the federal prison population by 51.1% and the state prison population by 17.8%. In Jan. of 1972 Nixon implemented the war on drugs. Since that time the prison population increased from 200,000 to 1.6 million. It’s estimated that federal expenses exceed $30,000 annually per prisoner. By decriminalizing drug use the U.S. could realize ~$760K in tax savings annually at the federal level and I’m willing to bet that it would actually be closer to $2 billion in annual savings when you factor in reduced labor expenditures.

    The problem is guard unions and corporations who are profiting from an increase in prison population. They’re success is dependent on annual prison population growth. It is in fact profitable to incarcerate human beings. So a second measure might be to de-incentivize incarceration by disallowing privatization.


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