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.

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