Despite Declining Crime Rates, U.S. Is Becoming More Punitive


The United States has the world’s highest incarceration rate, and more than 7.3 million people, or 1 in every 31 American adults, are incarcerated, on probation, or on parole. Crime rates have declined, meanwhile, bringing the overall crime rate to just half of what it was in 1990.

The Pew Charitable Trusts last week announced it had developed a new metric to measure how society punishes crime. Called the “punishment rate,” it captures the size of the prison population relative to the frequency and severity of crime reported in each jurisdiction.

Pew used the punishment rate to examine the U.S. criminal justice system and found that all states became more punitive from 1983 to 2013, even though they varied widely in the amount of punishment they imposed. Pew’s analysis also revealed that “the nation as a whole has become more punitive than the imprisonment rate alone indicates.”

The punishment rates in all 50 states grew from 1983 to 2013. Pew found that the U.S. overall became 165 percent more punitive between 1983 and 2013, as the imprisonment rate rose dramatically even while crime rates dropped. “In other words,” Pew reported, “the United States has responded to declining crime with the same high level of imprisonment, leading to a significant increase in the punishment rate, particularly in recent years.”