Commentary, Politics

Prison Population Growth

12.06.07 | 7 Comments

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Would it surprise you to know that the population of the US Penal system has increased 16 times faster than the population at large? Here are figures from the US Department of Justice that show the trends over the past 25 years (1980-2005):

US Department of Justice Corrections Population 1980-2005 chart
Population of Corrections Inmates Source: US DOJ

Since 1980, the population of people supervised by the Department of Justice has increased from 3.8x from 1.8M to just over 7M in 2005. When we simply look at incarceration (jail + prison) the population has increased 4.4x from 503,586 inmates to 2,193,798 inmates in 2005. The 1980 Census shows the population total of 227M and US Census estimates for 2005 population shows a net increase of 0.27x to 288M.

This prompts me to ask a few questions:

  • Have the number of criminals increased that substantially? If so, why?
  • Was law enforcement simply clueless before 1980 allowing a large segment of the criminal population to roam free post criminal activity?
  • Has something changed in the way laws are enforced? And are there new laws on the books?
  • At what point did we decide to become a nation of prisons?
  • What impact has the privatization of prisons had on the prison population growth rate?

All interesting questions, I don’t have answers to them. I have theories about a couple of them however.

Another interesting dimension to this issue is the makeup of the prison population at large. Reuters reports that in the US, Blacks are 10 times more likely to be incarcerated for drug offenses as whites. From the article:

Black Americans are 10 times more likely to be imprisoned for illegal drug offenses than whites, even though both groups use and sell drugs at the same rate, according to a study released on Tuesday.


The reasons for the disparity include federal mandatory minimum jail terms for drug crimes, which he said hit blacks harder.

For instance, the mandatory federal sentence is the same for possession of 5 grams (0.2 ounces) of crack, more associated with blacks, as 500 grams (18 ounces) of cocaine, which is more often used by whites.

Read more…
HT: Rondam’s Ramblings

What to conclude from all this? Well, I’m pretty sure that no one person has “the answer”, but I believe that the escalation in the “war on drugs” coupled with federal mandatory drug sentences enabled by a culture of fear and at least nascent racism fuels this trend. The most reasonable way to derail the trend, in my opinion, is to lift modern prohibition and regulate the substances in question. In fact, prohibition actually causes more crime than it prevents. We don’t see anyone being gunned down on the streets these days to control the alcohol trade do we? The reality is, we may have put more people in jail, but the underlying behavior goes on unchanged.

No amount of will of the people, forced morality, and money will change basic human nature. After all, if one wants a cup of coffee, a cigarette, food slathered in transfats, weight loss through pills, and/or a glass of wine, one will find a way to have it. If we’re honest with ourselves, there’s zero difference between one mind/body altering substance or another – it’s arbitrary that some are illegal and others are legal and regulated. The one pragmatic and meaningful step we can take is to end modern prohibition and regulate the substances. Then law enforcement’s efforts can be channeled toward violent crime activity.

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