Why Is the U.S. Prison Population So Large?

The United States houses more human beings in prisons than any other country, both in terms of actual numbers and in relation to population size. The U.S. prison population began to grow dramatically in the 1970s. Professor Daniel D’Amico examines the data behind the alarming increase in the number of prisoners in the United States and finds that much of the growth in the last 40 years has been driven by the war on drugs.

From 1980 to 1990, the total U.S. prison population more than doubled. In that same time, the proportion of people in prison for nonviolent drug crimes rose from 7.5 percent to 24 percent. Prof. D’Amico says this statistic actually understates the influence of the drug war on the prison population because drug prohibition also increases violent crime by leading to the formation of gangs and cartels. By 2000, the prison population had nearly doubled again, but the proportion of prisoners due to drug-related offenses remained similar.

From 2000 to 2010, the number of people incarcerated in the United States rose again, albeit at a much lower rate. Still, the proportions of offenses related to drug crimes held steady. Prof. D’Amico argues that America’s unique methods of enforcing drug prohibition seem to parallel its unique prison population. Is our country really better off with so many nonviolent drug offenders behind bars? We spend billions of dollars each year on the drug war and continue to lock up hundreds of thousands of people. Surely there is a less costly approach to addressing drug use in America.

6 Comments

  1. Emerson Howard

    What would a privitized prison system look like? What would the proper incentive structure look like?

  2. AnCapDalek

    "But if we don’t stop drug trafficking then there will be chaos and children smoking crack in our communities and our children’s lives will be lost" yes true, but for further generations to come it will get better and it will get a lower drug use if it was legal and the drug prohibition stops. Also, lives are lost in jail because of the drug war…

  3. rlspann89

    The issue of the development of organized crime is one issue I want to highlight in my Thesis and Dissertation work and how this development encourages higher rates of addiction. Great points!

  4. Anonymous

    Seems like we did not learn the lesson from Prohibition – control of personal vices is not the government’s responsibility.  It results in a grand opportunity for criminal action!  Time will tell now that States are understanding this and leading the way in decriminalization for recreational drug use.

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