The United States has an enormous prison problem. A more-than-2.4-million-prisoner-sized problem, to be precise, locked up in the archipelago of federal penitentiaries, state corrections facilities, and local jailhouses that form the nation's thriving prison-industrial complex. Since 1980, the number of incarcerated citizens in the US has more than quadrupled, an unprecedented rise that can attributed to four decades of tough-on-crime oneupmanship, and a draconian war on drugs.
A recent analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative shows that while states like Louisiana have undoubtedly led America's march toward mass incarceration, no state or region has been immune to the prison boom. And each state is a global aberration, with incarceration rates that compare to those found in isolated dictatorships and countries recovering from civil war.
As the chart shows, 36 states have higher incarceration rates than Cuba, the country with the world's second highest prison rate. New York comes in just above Rwanda, which is still trying thousands of people in connection to the 1994 genocide. Even Vermont, birthplace of Phish, Ben & Jerry's, and the country's only socialist senator, imprisons a higher percentage of its population than countries like Israel, Mexico, or Saudi Arabia.
Looked at in terms of actual inmate numbers, this means that the number of people behind bars in most US states is on par with the prison populations of entire nations. And not Luxembourg or Burundi. Big, messy countries, like Venezuela and Egypt.
The numbers, Wagner explained, underscore the central role that states have played in America’s unprecedented prison buildup. While much of the recent prison debate has centered on federal sentencing laws and drug policy reform, the real mass incarceration action has taken place at the state level. According to PPI data, more than half of US inmates—57 percent—are in state prisons, and another 30 percent are incarcerated in local jails, generally for violating state laws. Though prison rates have varied widely across the US, all 50 states have implemented some set of policies—like mandatory minimums, “truth in sentencing” policies, or “three strikes” rules—aimed at putting more people in prison for longer periods of time.
Unsurprisingly, the economic and social impacts of this trend have been massive. According to a 464-page report published by the National Research Council earlier this year, state spending on corrections increased 400 percent between 1980 and 2009. The result, the NRC points out, is that prisons are now some of the primary providers of health care, counseling, and job training to the country's most disadvantaged groups. Meanwhile, the social and cultural costs of mass incarceration are disproportionately borne by poor communities, minorities, and people with mental illnesses.
And the actual benefits of mass incarceration are minimal, at best. Sure, crime rates have gone down since 1980, but studies have found the connection between increased prison rates and lower crime is tenuous and small. In fact a report released by The Sentencing Project this week found that in states that have substantially reduced their prison population in recent years, like California, New York, and New Jersey, the crime rate has actually fallen faster than the national average.
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