"The U.S. has less than 5 percent of the world's population. But it has almost a quarter of the world's prisoners." Phrased another way, the U.S. "has 751 people in prison or jail for every 100,000 in population. The only other major industrialized nation that comes even close is Russia, with 627 prisoners for every 100,000 people. The others have much lower rates. England's rate is 151. Germany's is 88. Japan's is 63." These figures come from a NYTimes report datelined April 2008. If you look at the current Wikipedia comparison of incarceration rates by country, little has changed. For a graphic representation, see the image above (click to enlarge).
Why does the U.S. have 1 out of every 100 adult citizens in jail or prison? Part of the answer can be found in an NPR analysis, The Root: The Price of Funding Jails Over Schools. This country's prison population skyrocketed with the introduction of the misguided war on drugs (see image below). Rather than tackling the disease (poverty, lack of education, poor health care), the government tackled one of the symptoms (drug use). The result was that by 1994, 1 million Americans each year went to prison on a drug charge.
American prisons and jails are so overcrowded that incarceration is often outsourced to private, for-profit detention centers. Conditions in both government and private facilities are a disgrace ~ staff brutality, poor food and healthcare, violence and rape among prisoners, and subhuman living conditions only scratch the surface. Imprisonment is also expensive, with the annual cost to taxpayers per prisoner averaging $24,000 ~ meaning that in some locations, the cost is much higher.
As the NPR report states, "Largely as a result of the War on Drugs — which includes police stops, arrests, and mandatory minimum sentences — more than half of all prison and jail inmates — including 56 percent of state prisoners, 45 percent of federal prisoners, and 64 percent of local jail inmates — are now those with mental health or drug problems .... While Americans of all races and ethnicities use illegal drugs at a rate proportionate to their total population representation, African Americans are imprisoned for drug offenses at 13 times the rate of their white counterparts .... According to "Unlocking America: Why and How to Reduce America's Prison Population," if African Americans and Latinos were incarcerated at the same rates as whites, today's prison and jail populations would decline by approximately 50 percent."
The NPR report also notes that "dollar for dollar, drug treatment is seven times more effective than incarceration for rehabilitating those suffering from drug addiction." Further, drug arrests and convictions do not differentiate between harmful drugs like heroin or crack cocaine, and relatively harmless substances like marijuana. Between one quarter and one half of all those incarcerated for drug offences, are in prison for marijuana. This is like tossing someone in slam for buying alcohol. Which raises the obvious comparison ~ wouldn't it make infinite sense to treat marijuana like alcohol ~ legalize it, regulate the quality of the product, and tax sales. But that's another story.
Bottom line, at a time when federal, state and local governments are cutting funding for education, we continue to spend nearly $70 billion annually on imprisoning more of our population than any developed country in the world. What's wrong with this picture?