In 2021, America had 2.3 million people behind bars, the highest number in the world. The incarceration rate skyrocketed to 500% of the population in four decades, beginning in 1980.
In 2022, however, China ranked first with almost 1.7 million prisoners. It leaves the US with around 25,000 fewer prisoners.
The US stands by its reputation as "the land of the free," yet that's not the same reality for those left behind bars. This article looks at the data on why the US incarcerates people and who is most affected by mass incarceration.
- Incarcerated black Americans have almost five times the rate of white Americans.
- The Latin population has 1.3 times the incarceration rate compared to white Americans.
- Young Afro-Americans are 50% more likely to be imprisoned in pretrial than white Americans.
- Adults who experience poverty are three times more likely to be arrested.
- The average bail amount rose to $55,400 from $25,000.
- Staying in prison throughout the trial increases the likelihood of conviction from 50% to 92%.
- The US ranked midway in reported homicide rates but ranked 1st in incarceration.
- Several countries' jail occupancy rates exceed 100% of their prison capacity, way worse than the US.
Incarceration Statistics Overview
The US incarceration rate has changed over time. It started in 1972 with only 200,000 prisoners, reaching 2.3 million in 2020.
Nothing is permanent, like America's spot for having the highest incarceration rate in 2021. It moved down to 6th worldwide, and El Salvador took the lead for the highest incarceration rate in the world.
Despite these changes, the US still holds many people behind bars. In the following sections, you'll understand why it remains a problem and how it impacts minorities and those in poverty.
Incarceration Statistics by Race
Race-based incarceration statistics show that Americans of color face persistent racial prejudice. It is also argued that one of the communities affected by the War on Drugs effort is the racial minority.
The data below will show the overrepresentation of race in US prisons and jails:
1. Incarcerated black Americans have almost five times the rate of white Americans.
(The Sentencing Project)
In 12 states of America, 81 black adult inmates per 100,000 people are in state prison compared to the number of white Americans.
Even in Hawaii, despite the lowest disparity between blacks and whites, state prisons hold 4% of black Americans in their entire prison population, compared to only 3% of the state's total population.
2. The Latin population has 1.3 times the incarceration rate compared to white Americans.
(CNN Politics, Pew Research Center)
Racial discrimination in America's incarceration system is not just a black-and-white scenario. The Latin population in the US was also affected by the overcriminalization of racial minorities.
In 2019, the overcriminalization of the black community in US prisons and jails shrank the gap between the number of black and white prisoners.
It is not the same with the Hispanic population because the disparity between white prisoners has remained unmovable since 2009.
3. Young Afro-Americans are 50% more likely to be imprisoned in pretrial than white Americans.
Most young African Americans cannot set bail or apply for a bond since they can't afford it. White Americans have the upper hand since they have high-paying jobs or better economic standing.
Even more alarming, black and brown defendants received higher bail than white Americans.
Incarceration and Poverty Statistics
Arrests and heavier penalties are more frequent for impoverished adults. See the data on why US incarceration has severely affected people in poverty through statistics:
4. Adults who experience poverty are three times more likely to be arrested.
(Texas CJC, Prison Legal News)
A total of 143,000 homeless people were arrested because of laws criminalizing various behaviors concerning homelessness.
It is tragic to be incarcerated because of your inability to rise from poverty. Nonpayment of child support also led to 50,000 incarcerations in 2016.
5. The average bail amount rose to $55,400 from $25,000.
(ACLU, Hamilton Project, Bureau of Justice Statistics)
From 1990 to 2009, ACLU research found that the average bail assigned to a person had risen to $30,000, resulting in a steep rise in incarcerated people.
In the BJS report, nearly 2 out of 3 are in prison in local jails, even if they are not yet convicted. They are imprisoned because they cannot afford to set bail or pay a bond. Unlike others, people in poverty do not have the luxury of buying their freedom.
6. While their case is pending, a person in prison has a 92% chance of getting convicted.
(NYC Criminal and Justice Agency, Inc.)
NYC Criminal found that when a person remains in jail without money to post bail, the chance of being convicted rises from 50% to 92%.
Prosecutors generally take advantage of people who cannot afford bail to plead guilty, promising a release. This is the harsh reality of having no connection or money to set bail.
US Incarceration Rate vs. World
In 2021, the number of incarcerated people in the US was roughly 25% of the prison population in the world.
Massachusetts, the state with the lowest incarceration rate in America, ranks 17th out of 195 countries compared to their rates. This ranking is higher than in countries like Colombia or Iran.
For an in-depth discussion, look at these statistics to compare the incarceration rate in America to other countries:
7. China beats the US for having the most prisoners globally by roughly a 25,000-point margin.
According to the 2023 data, China has a 1,690,000 prison population, now the highest prison population. The country is also the most populated in the world.
Most crimes recorded in China were related to theft and fraud. Human rights advocates and critics claim that several prisoners in China have been detained for political and religious reasons.
8. The US ranks midpoint in reported homicide rates but 1st in incarceration.
From 2004 to 2014, the US ranked in the middle of all countries that logged their homicide reports. However, from 2010 to 2013, America ranked the highest.
To dissuade crime, the US imprisons many people. Critics stated that the war on drugs and biased court system imprisoned many people without discouraging crime.
9. Even worse than the US, other countries exceed 100% of their prison capacity.
(World Population Review)
Despite having the 2nd highest prison population, the US jail capacity was 69.5 percent in 2021. It's better than countries like Kenya, whose prison capacity is over its limit, currently at 284%.
The US may be an example for other countries regarding jailing capacity. However, as incarceration rises, it will likely face the same issues as other nations.
10. The incarceration rate of Western countries is less than 1 out of 4 of America's incarceration rate.
(Pew Research Center)
In 2018, the incarceration rate in America had left Western countries such as England, France, and Germany by a significant margin:
- America: 639 inmates in every 100,000 population.
- England and Wales: 131 inmates in every 100,000 people.
- France: 93 inmates in every 100,000 people.
- Germany: 69 inmates in every 100,000 people.
The US and the European Union shared the same values of democracy and promoting global peace and freedom. Unfortunately, America, as the model for promoting democracy and freedom, is resulting in mass incarceration.
The Bottom Line
The US imprisons people for low-level drug offenses and other legal offenses indirectly related to their economic status. Meanwhile, those with better financial resources can secure their freedom until proven guilty.
The US incarceration rate also shows that minorities endure racial prejudice from arrest to pretrial and sentencing. Without tackling poverty, overcriminalization, and racial bias, the US would be seen as a society prioritizing incarceration over public safety.