Mass incarceration in the United States continues at record high levels despite outsized costs. According to recent data reported in The Economist, the United States has the world’s highest incarceration rate, locking up five times more people per capita than Britain, nine times more than Germany, and 12 times more than Japan.
Recent reports have documented the magnitude of the increase in mass incarceration in the United States. In 1970, one in 400 Americans were incarcerated, compared with today’s rate of one in 100. Counting people on parole or probation, one adult American in 31 is under correctional supervision.
As “tough on crime” laws have increased prison terms and decreased judges’ discretion to make the punishment fit the crime, more Americans are finding themselves behind bars, even for nonviolent crimes. The number of drug offenders in federal and state prison has increased 13-fold since 1980.
New data also shows that incarceration has become hugely expensive. The annual cost per prisoner is as high as about $50,000 in California, which is seven times what the state spends per student on education. And while the nation’s incarceration rate has quadrupled since 1970, it has had no impact on the violent-crime rate.
In contrast, other countries, like the Netherlands, have used new innovations such as non-custodial sentences to reduce both the prison population and the cime rate. New York demonstrated this approach can succeed in the United States; it reduced the violent crime rate by 40% between 1997 and 2007 while cutting its incarceration rate by 15%.