We can reduce that number.
The United States locks up more of its people than any other nation in the world, with more than 2.1 million adults in prisons and jails in 2018.
The staggering size of the criminal legal system in the United States is unprecedented. We call this “mass incarceration” — a shameful policy failure most accurately described as a national crisis. Mass incarceration has damaged families, wreaked havoc on communities of color, and wasted trillions of taxpayer dollars.
Each state’s prison population across the country has ballooned in recent decades, growing by 328 percent between 1980 and 2017. People enter prison for a wide range of offenses that vary from state to state. In state prisons in 2017, 18 percent of people were serving time for property offenses, 15 percent for drug offenses, and 12 percent for public order offenses.
Harsh sentencing practices, limited opportunities to earn time off, and restrictive release policies all contribute to long stays in prison across the country. As a result, seven states in 2014 had prison populations in which more than one in 20 people had already been imprisoned for 20 years or more.
Unsurprisingly, the country’s mass incarceration crisis has had an enormous impact on people on people of color, especially Black adults. In fact, the average state imprisonment rate for Black adults is over five times as high as the rate for white adults.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. The country can dramatically reduce its prison populations and challenge racism in the system by implementing just a few sensible reforms:
- End overpolicing in communities of color.
- Decriminalize offenses that should not require a criminal legal system response.
- Adopt policies and practices that treat incarceration as a last-resort option.
- Eliminate wealth-based discrimination.
- Ban the use of incarceration as a response to rule-breaking behaviors that do not involve a new offense.
- Eliminate mandatory minimums, truth-in-sentencing laws, and life, life without parole, and nearly life sentences.
For more information, along with detailed breakdowns of the country’s prison populations, systemic racial disparities, and the reforms needed to reduce them, click here.