More people are behind bars in the US than any other nation, and not because of more crime. Rather, a shift in “ideological policy choices” is the primary driver, according to some criminal justice reform advocates.
The incarceration rate in the US has increased to a shocking degree over the past several decades, “from 220 per 100,000 residents in 1980 to more than 700 per 100,000 in 2012,” according to new research from the Cato Institute. It may have slipped slightly, down to 693 per 100,000 in 2016, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, but that's not much of a dent.
In fact, it's still more than five times higher than most countries, including China, according to the criminal justice reform think tank. Today, there are approximately 2.3 million people jailed in America on any given day, “giving this nation the dubious distinction of having the highest incarceration rate in the world,” the PPI said in a report issued earlier this year.
Sadly, non-violent behavior such as drug and immigration violations makes an oversized contribution to this phenomenon, with nearly half a million individuals incarcerated due to the former and about 51,000 persons because of the latter. Given how a criminal record can devastate a person's future employment prospects, this threatens to destroy thousands of lives.
So what happened? “Here in the US, policymakers in the 1970s made the decision to start incarcerating Americans at globally unprecedented rates,” the PPI explained in another report in 2016. “The decades that followed have revealed that the growth in the US prison population can be more closely attributed to ideological policy choices,” it added. That shift “has not managed to significantly enhance public safety, but instead has consistently and disproportionately stunted the social and economic well-being of poor communities and communities of color for generations.”