Life in Lockup: An In-depth Look at Reasons for Incarceration in the U.S.

Jay Leiderman
By: Jay Leiderman
May 09 2015

Life in Lockup: An In-depth Look at Reasons for Incarceration in the U.S.



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Life in Lockup: An In-depth Look at Reasons for Incarceration in the U.S.

The United States jails more of its citizens than any other country in the world. And the rate of incarceration has surged in recent decades. What’s behind the trend of mass incarceration?

In the Lead (But Not for a Good Reason)

The U.S. outpaces all other nations in incarceration rate — and it’s not even close. But mass incarceration wasn’t always part of the American way of life.

Prisoners per 100,000 population, select countries (1)

U.S.: 716

Rwanda: 492

Russia: 475

Brazil: 274

Spain: 147

Australia: 130

China: 121

Canada: 118

Austria: 98

France: 98

Germany: 79

Denmark: 73

Sweden: 67

India: 30

Incarceration rate by state (prisoners per 100,000 population) (2)

Washington: 269

Oregon: 361

California: 439

Idaho: 474

Nevada: 472

Arizona: 572

Utah: 238

Montana: 378

Wyoming: 385

Colorado: 445

New Mexico: 323

North Dakota: 226

South Dakota: 416

Nebraska: 247

Kansas: 317

Oklahoma: 654

Texas: 648

Wisconsin: 366

Illinois: 373

Minnesota: 185

Iowa: 309

Missouri: 508

Arkansas: 552

Louisiana: 867

Michigan: 445

Indiana: 434

Kentucky: 458

Tennessee: 432

Mississippi: 686

Alabama: 648

Ohio: 448

Florida: 556

Georgia: 479

South Carolina: 495

North Carolina: 373

Virginia: 468

West Virginia: 363

Maryland: 387

Delaware: 443

New Jersey: 286

Pennsylvania: 403

New York: 288

Vermont: 265

New Hampshire: 209

Maine: 148

Massachusetts: 200

Rhode Island: 197

Connecticut: 376

Alaska: 340

Hawaii: 302

Sentencing Guidelines

Length of sentence, often as a result of mandatory minimum sentencing, is a primary reason why the U.S. prison population remains high.

Average sentence for burglary (3)

U.S.: 16 months

Canada: 5 months

United Kingdom: 7 months

Federal sentencing guidelines first adopted in the 1980s were aimed at standardizing punishment for serious crimes across the country. And changes over the years have focused on drug crimes, in particular, including mandatory minimums for crimes related to certain drugs, even if those crimes were nonviolent. (4, 5, 6)


Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 establishes the U.S. Sentencing Commission and federal sentencing guidelines.


The Anti-Drug Abuse Act establishes mandatory minimum federal sentences. The minimum for selling or possessing crack is 100 times harsher than for powder cocaine. In the following decade, the prison population doubles.


The U.S. Supreme Court rules against a Michigan man in his effort to overturn his life sentence for possessing 1.4 pounds of cocaine.


Inspired by the rape and murder of Polly Klaas, California enacts its “three strikes” law mandating that any offender with three felonies receive minimum sentences of 25 years to life.

Federal law mandates a sentence of life without parole for anyone whose third strike is a federal crime.

The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act provides federal grants for states that adopt truth-in-sentencing policies, including that individuals convicted of violent crimes serve at least 85% of their sentence.


Nearly two-dozen other states adopt measures similar to that in California.

Drug offenders soon make up 25% of the prison population.

10 times as many third-strikers are serving time for drug possession as for second-degree murder.

The federal sentencing commission recommends making the punishment for crack the same as for powder cocaine; for the first time since the inception of the commission, Congress rejects its recommendation.


A survey finds that 74% of district court judges and 83% of circuit court judges believe mandatory drug sentences are too harsh.


The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 reduces the 100:1 disparity between crack and powder cocaine to 18:1.

Between 1997 and 2010, the average sentence for federal child pornography offenders rose from 20.59 months to 118 months, a 500% increase. In 2010, the vast majority of federal child porn offenders had no prior criminal record at the time of their sentencing.

The War on Drugs

Since President Ronald Reagan made it a major focus of his domestic policy in the early 1980s, drug crime has helped fill prisons across the country.

Americans jailed for drug offenses (1)

1980: 41,000

2011: 500,000

Average length of prison stay for drug offenders (1)

1986: 22 months

2001: 62 months

1 in 2

Federal prisoners incarcerated for drug offenses (1)

8 in 10

Drug arrests in 2013 for possession rather than sale or manufacturing (7)


Policies that require law enforcement to detain those suspected of being illegal immigrants also are helping the prison population balloon — and adding to the bill for taxpayers.

Average daily population of immigration detainees (8)

1994: 5,000

2001: 19,000

2010: 33,000


Daily cost to hold a single immigration detainee

That’s $2 billion a year. (9)

1 in 5

U.S. households of “mixed” immigration status (8)

Private Prisons

More and more states and cities are handing control of incarceration to private companies. As a result, incarceration is becoming an ever-growing industry.

A decade ago, only 5 private prisons operated in the U.S. Today, there are more than 100 of them. (10)

Prisoners in private facilities (10)

2004: 2,000

2014: 62,000

2024: 360,000*

* Projected


Increase in private prison population between 2002 and 2009 (11)


Increase in profits for Corrections Corporation of America over the past 20 years (12)


Occupancy rate guaranteed by many states, with some even guaranteeing 100% occupancy (12)