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US Prisons Hold a Quarter of the World's Incarcerated People

Kay has been working in the legal defense field for almost a decade, with a degree in political science and background in criminal justice.


Increased Incarceration Rates Statistics

The United States has prided itself since its inception of being the "Land of the Free, and Home of the Brave," but the recent trend in US incarceration rates shows something much, much different.

While the US is home to only about 5% of the world's population, it also holds 25% of the total number of incarcerated people globally. This is currently the highest percentage of people in prison throughout the world, surpassing countries such as Iraq, North Korea, Russia, and many others which many people view as heavily favoring imprisonment for petty offenses.

Since the 1980s, the number of federal prisoners has risen over 400%. As per available statistics from 2019, the actual number of prisoners in the US has skyrocketed to over 2 million people. This is in spite of the fact that violent crime has been on the decline since the 1980s as well.

Approximately 0.7% of the entire US population is incarcerated in the American prison system - this equates to about 698 per 100,000 people. The amount changes to 1 out of 100 people in the US in jail for working age adults over the age of 18.

Average cell in a 'Supermax' prison

Average cell in a 'Supermax' prison

Mandatory Minimum Sentencing

Mandatory sentencing has played a huge role in this increase in prisoners. These policies, which ensure that a guilty party receives a set time in prison depending on the nature of the crime, was originally enacted to prevent corruption and leave less room for human error on the part of the sentencing judge or jury.

However, it is obvious that the threat of guaranteed prison time has done little to deter criminals, and has only increased the prison population in this country. This is evidenced by the fact that, there are statistically less violent crimes being committed, yet more citizens going to jail for various offenses.

Having a minimum sentence attached to a charge could mean that a convicted person, if found guilty, could potentially receive a definite jail sentence for even non-violent crimes such as writing a bad check, evading arrest, possessing fraudulent identification, and countless other offenses.

US Prison vs. the European Union

US Prison vs. the European Union

While the mandatory nature of these policies could remove some potential human error in some situations, with regards to seemingly inadequate sentencing, it also removes any room for leniency based on the context of how or why the crime was committed.

Incarceration or Rehabilitation?

Legal analysts have pointed out that this dramatic increase could be due to the idea that judges, prosecutors, and politicians all want to appear to be "tough on crime." This means that often, the maximum sentence is given to offenders, and there are usually harsh penalties for even non-violent offenses. This policy of Incarceration over Rehabilitation leaves little room for change, and often when there cases which may require a bit of interpretation, the sentence is harsh and long-term, in accordance with the court's or governments' desire to not appear 'soft' towards criminals of any nature.

This focus on removal rather than rehabilitation can have a devastating effect on recidivism rates. According to the Harvard Political Review, as of 2020, two out of three former prisoners are rearrested and more than 50% are incarcerated again.

Not only does this have an obvious human impact regarding the lives of people convicted and their loved ones, it also places additional heavy burdens on the court systems and taxpayers who fund many of the prison systems in the US.


The US Drug War

Other analysts have argued that the US's tough anti-drug policies have had a huge negative influence on the incarceration rate. Since the aptly named 'war on drugs' started in the 1970s, America's prison rate has increased 700%.

Most countries within the European Union, as well as throughout Asia and in many other parts of the world have chosen to adopt a more rehabilitative stance on drug use. In the UK, for example, anyone caught with a small amount of an illegal substance may not receive any jail time; rather, at the discretion of the courts, they may be sent to a mandatory rehab program, which will help them manage and overcome their addiction, rather then simply throwing them in a cell.

Compare this to the US, where several cities hold policies where a person may receive jail time for years for simply possessing paraphernalia, with no actual illegal substances present.

The Effect on Minorities and the Poor

The war on drugs in particular has contributed to ever-increasing number of minorities in the prison system. While adult black males make up only 13% of the population, they comprise 40% of incarcerated males. Offenses for paraphernalia and non-lethal substances like marijuana often carry jail sentences just for possession.

In underfunded locales and in predominantly African-American communities, police reports indicate that the drug culture is often more prevalent then in others. As the US actively attempts to incarcerate anyone with any affiliation to the drug culture, minorities and the poor often suffer the most, and are simply thrown in jail for any kind of drug-related offense.

Impact of Incarceration on Addiction

Those who are incarcerated for drug offenses often have the worst experiences in prison. If they are struggling with an addiction, there is often no medical or psychological treatment for coping without their substance of choice. These people often suffer from withdrawal symptoms, severe depression, and occasionally physical illness related to the substances leaving their system.

Even after they overcome the initial withdrawal issues, many people who have struggled with substance addiction become accustomed to the prison system's structured style, which forces them to stay on track. However, once they are released back into society, people with a history of addiction are usually left with little to no resources to help them cope with the world again. After release, former convicted persons generally return to their home where the same triggers and influences may still be present.

Often, without proper treatment, people may revert back to those coping mechanisms they were using before they were convicted. Within time, they may end up back inside of a prison, for the same offense as before.

Politicians, court officials and many others have argued that these repeat offenders 'deserve' to go back to prison, since they 'did not learn the first time.' However, the science and medical community has collectively attempted to change the perception of addiction in recent years.

Studies from both fields have asserted that addiction is a sort of disease, and in order to cure addiction, the best method is through treatment and therapy - NOT simply being thrown in a cell with all manner of criminals. Without proper preparations, prisoners incarcerated for drug offenses often are left with no choice but to go back to their old lifestyle, and risk incarceration again.


There are many facts which may have contributed to the shocking rise in incarceration rates. Yet what remains clear above all else is the fact that something needs to change.

  • 1 out of every 100 adults in the US is in prison
  • The US has the highest percentage of incarcerated persons in the world.
  • Over 2.4 million Americans are in jail - but China, which has 4 times the population of the US, comes in a far-away second has only 1.6 million.

Whatever you believe the underlying cause to be, remember that simply putting someone out of site, and out of mind, does not mean an end to crime in the US.

Write to your local politicians, congressmen, prosecutors and court officials to try to bring about change, and help America return to being the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave.

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