US Has the Most Prisoners in the
by James Vicini
Reuters, December 9, 2006
Tough sentencing laws, record numbers
of drug offenders and high crime rates have contributed to the
United States having the largest prison population and the highest
rate of incarceration in the world, according to criminal justice
A U.S. Justice Department report released
on November 30 showed that a record 7 million people -- or one
in every 32 American adults -- were behind bars, on probation
or on parole at the end of last year. Of the total, 2.2 million
were in prison or jail.
According to the International Centre
for Prison Studies at King's College in London, more people are
behind bars in the United States than in any other country. China
ranks second with 1.5 million prisoners, followed by Russia with
The U.S. incarceration rate of 737 per
100,000 people in the highest, followed by 611 in Russia and 547
for St. Kitts and Nevis. In contrast, the incarceration rates
in many Western industrial nations range around 100 per 100,000
Groups advocating reform of U.S. sentencing
laws seized on the latest U.S. prison population figures showing
admissions of inmates have been rising even faster than the numbers
of prisoners who have been released.
"The United States has 5 percent
of the world's population and 25 percent of the world's incarcerated
population. We rank first in the world in locking up our fellow
citizens," said Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance,
which supports alternatives in the war on drugs.
"We now imprison more people for
drug law violations than all of western Europe, with a much larger
population, incarcerates for all offences."
Ryan King, a policy analyst at The Sentencing
Project, a group advocating sentencing reform, said the United
States has a more punitive criminal justice system than other
MORE PEOPLE TO PRISON
"We send more people to prison, for
more different offences, for longer periods of time than anybody
else," he said.
Drug offenders account for about 2 million
of the 7 million in prison, on probation or parole, King said,
adding that other countries often stress treatment instead of
Commenting on what the prison figures
show about U.S. society, King said various social programs, including
those dealing with education, poverty, urban development, health
care and child care, have failed.
"There are a number of social programs
we have failed to deliver. There are systemic failures going on,"
he said. "A lot of these people then end up in the criminal
Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the
Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in California, said the high
prison numbers represented a proper response to the crime problem
in the United States. Locking up more criminals has contributed
to lower crime rates, he said.
"The hand-wringing over the incarceration
rate is missing the mark," he said.
Scheidegger said the high prison population
reflected cultural differences, with the United States having
far higher crimes rates than European nations or Japan. "We
have more crime. More crime gets you more prisoners."
Julie Stewart, president of the group
Families Against Mandatory Minimums, cited the Justice Department
report and said drug offenders are clogging the U.S. justice system.
"Why are so many people in prison?
Blame mandatory sentencing laws and the record number of nonviolent
drug offenders subject to them," she said.