The Exponential Growth Of American Incarceration, In Three Graphs


Inmates sit in crowded conditions at California State Prison, Los Angeles.

Inmates sit in crowded conditions at California State Prison, Los Angeles.

CREDIT: AP Photo/California Department of Corrections

The Prison Policy Initiative released a deluge of data Wednesday on United States prison population rates. The main take-away of the data is nothing new: The U.S. prison population is the highest in the world, and has grown exponentially since the 1970s, tracking the rise of the so-called War on Drugs.

But for all the talk these past few months about the federal prison population — and the concerns there are urgent — these charts call out the major perpetrators of the prison explosion: the states, where incarceration rates have increased more than fourfold:


CREDIT: Prison Policy Initiative

Unsurprisingly, these rates of imprisonment vary tremendously between states, as does their trajectory. California, whose prisons were found to be so overcrowded that conditions violated the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, has been forced by the U.S. Supreme Court to reduce its prison population. Louisiana and Alabama, meanwhile, have seen rates of imprisonment well above California’s continue to rise through 2012, while Minnesota’s has remained comparatively low:


CREDIT: Prison Policy Initiative

Lastly, these disparities reflect prison rates that have always been highest in the south and lowest in the northeast, and have increased proportionally:


Louisiana, the most notorious of these southern states, hasn’t taken the steps some other states have to reform its criminal justice policies. But just this month, Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) signed into law several modest reforms to enable work release programs for some inmates, and to mitigate the sentencing impact of a conviction more than ten years old. Alabama has also made some bipartisan progress in creating alternatives to prison for probation violations — a hidden cause of re-incarceration. But Alabama’s prisons remain some of the most overcrowded, and former Alabama chief justice Sue Bell Cobb lamented just last month that the state retains “absurdly harsh sentencing laws that lead to overcrowded, dangerous prisons that breed more crime.”

While the report does not focus on local jails, they make up some 30 percent of U.S. incarceration by PPI’s count. People in jails are typically held for shorter periods of time, either while awaiting trial or for less serious crimes. But these jails will also come into play as states consider reducing mass incarceration. Many put behind bars for marijuana possession, for example, end up in local jails. And Alabama earned the distinction last year of detaining the only U.S. journalist incarcerated for doing his job in a county jail.