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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.

America's One-Million Nonviolent Prisoners [report]: A stastical breakdown of American prisoners convicted of non-violent crimes


A Chart That Says the War on Drugs Isn't Working [chart]: Interactive chart shows that ramping up the Drug War has not decreased drug addiction in America


Jesse Jackson, Black Leaders Are Right About Ending the War on Drugs [article]: Huffington Post piece on "the racism and hypocrisy in our nation's war on drugs."


Bringing Down the U.S. Prison Population [journal article]: A scholarly examination of America's rising prison population


The United States houses more human beings in prisons than any other country in the world. This is true whether you are counting total numbers or in relation to population size. This wasn’t always the case. The number of prisoners in the US began to rise dramatically in the 1970s.

So what changed in America compared to other countries while there are several competing theories a look at the data reveals that a significant part of the prison growth in the last 40 years has been driven by the war on drugs. Here is the data by 1980 there were over 315,000 prisoners in state and federal facilities.

57 percent were violent offender 30 percent were property violators such as those convicted for fraud. 5.5 percent of inmates were in for public water and other miscellaneous offences and the 7.5 percent were non-violent drug law violators. Ten years later the drug war had grown and the total American prison population had more than doubled to over 740,000 inmates.

The proportion of offenders in each type of crime had also changed dramatically. The most growth occurred in the non-violent drug offender population which grew to a significant 24 percent and this last statistics actually understates the influence of the drug war on prison populations.

Many studies have shown that drug prohibition causes violent crime by leading to the formation of gangs and cartels and thus it is safe to say that the number of violent criminals under prohibition is higher than it would otherwise be.

From 1990 to 2000 the drug driven population growth continued. By 2000 the total prison population had almost doubled again to over 1.3 million inmates and by 2010 the prison population was up to 1.6 million people. The growth has started to settle and even decline in recent years but the proportions of offences are retaining their post 1990 levels.

Americas unique methods of enforcing drug prohibition seem to parallel its unique prison population and one has to ask is our country really better off with so many non-violent drug offenders behind bars. Are drug users likely to be cured from addiction by being locked up? Has locking up dealers and users lessened the demand for drugs?

Certainly the effects on overall usage could not be called a success and yet we spend billions every year on this war and lock up hundreds of thousands. Surely there must be a less costly approach to addressing drug use in America.

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3 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…

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