US Prison Population: The Largest in the World

Daniel D’Amico,

Release Date
August 21, 2012


Criminal Justice

The United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world—more even than China or Russia. In fact, more people are in prisons in the United States than in all other developed countries combined. Professor Daniel J. D’Amico explains that as of 2010 over 1.6 million people were serving jail sentences in America.
What does this say about the United States? Professor D’Amico suggests that “prisons are not what we think about when we think of America, and they shouldn’t have to be.”  According to D’Amico, a free country should not have 1.6 million people in prison, and a fiscally responsible country cannot afford to. As Prof. D’Amico points out, it is time for Americans to recognize that the U.S. criminal justice system is desperately in need of reform.

Discussion Questions:
1. What are the causes for the unusually high incarceration rate in the United States?
2. Do you think prisons are an effective way of handling crime?
3. What alternatives or reforms to the current prison system can you imagine for handling crime more effectively?
The Caging of America  [article]: Wide ranging New Yorker piece, discusses history, ethics, everyday prisoner experience. Explores a few theories as to why our prison system is the way it is.
The Business Ethics of Incarceration: The Moral Implications of Treating Prisons Like Businesses  [scholarly article]: Professor D’Amico addresses the economics and morality of prison and prison privatization.
U.S. prison population dwarfs that of other nations  [article]: New York Times article focusing on America’s disproportionate prison population.
Prisoners’ Poetry  [poems]: A website featuring poems written by prisoners.

The United States of America incarcerates more people than any other country in the world. In fact, the U.S. hosts more prison inmates than all other developed nations combined. As of 2010 the world population was over 6.8 billion people, with an estimated 9.8 million in jail. This figure, compiled by the International Center for Prison Studies, refers both to individuals held in jail awaiting trial and inmates serving time after sentencing. So there are 9.8 million human beings on planet earth living inside of cages . . . that we know of.

In 2010 the U.S. was home to about 309 million people, 4.5 percent of the world’s total population, but housed 23 percent of the world’s prisoners. So take a moment to think about what this means. It means we imprison more people than enormous autocratic countries like China. We imprison more people than Russia. Compared to the size of our population, our rate of imprisonment dwarfs our closest allies, like the United Kingdom, France, and Canada. As of 2010, there were over 1.6 million post-trial inmates serving sentences in America’s state and federal facilities. This number does not include those being detained pretrial or those on probation.

The most unique feature of incarceration in America is the large and active role of our federal government. In most countries crime is reacted to at the local or regional level, whereas the American government finances and legislates a significant portion of law enforcement at the national level. State governments still do their fair share of incarceration though. California and Texas incarcerate more than other states, with over 171,000 inmates each. Florida is a close third with over 103,000 prisoners. But no single state locks up more people than the federal government, with over 208,000 inmates.

Perhaps the nickname land of the free, home of the brave should be updated. Though I suppose you need to be brave to endure the highest likelihood of incarceration the world has ever known. Prisons are not what we think about when we think of America, and they shouldn’t have to be. A free nation should not imprison so many people, and a fiscally responsible nation can’t afford to. With close to $40 billion a year in state correctional spending, the financial costs are obvious and staggering alone. But the human costs are often underappreciated: 1.6 million, fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of American families are incarcerated. It’s time for people to realize that the criminal justice system in America is desperately in need of reform.