Despite a growing appetite among policy makers for criminal legal reforms, the United States is still the most incarcerated country in the world by a long shot. Even more progressive states have a higher percentage of their population behind bars than most other countries.
Thirty-one US states have a higher incarceration rate than any single nation worldwide, including countries with authoritarian governments, such as Russia and China, according to a new report by the Prison Policy Initiative. The US also leads the world in the incarceration of women. Only 4 percent of women live in the US, but the US accounts for over 30 percent of incarcerated women worldwide.
To calculate total incarceration rates in the US and individual states, the Prison Policy Initiative included available data on the number of people who are confined in jails, juvenile detention centers, immigration jails and psychiatric hospitals as a result of criminal charges or convictions, as well as state and federal prisons. In most states, adding these numbers to the population held in traditional jails and prisons had only a small impact on their ranking among other states and independent countries.
Oklahoma is now the most incarcerated state in the US, having surpassed Louisiana, which has long been known as the “world’s prison capital.” Louisiana now ranks in second place, followed by Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama and other Southern states.
Oklahoma’s harsh drug trafficking and mandatory minimum sentencing laws implemented during the anti-drug hysteria of the 1990s help explain why the state is now the most incarcerated place on the planet. State lawmakers have moved to loosen some of these laws in recent years, but not enough to stem the growing prison population.
Oklahoma prisons are now operating above capacity, and Republican Gov. Mary Fallin recently signed a package of reforms aimed at slowing a projected 25 percent increase in the state’s prison population over the next decade, according to reports. The package includes measures clarifying the difference between drug possession and drug trafficking, and prevents prosecutors from seeking enhanced sentences based on prior drug charges.
Conservative, “tough on crime” politics have long dominated states like Louisiana and Oklahoma, but even more progressive states, such as New York and Connecticut tend to have incarceration rates similar to independent nations with authoritarian governments, internal armed conflicts and high rates of violence. Murder rates in El Salvador, Russia, Panama, Costa Rica and Brazil are all more than double that of the US, but their rates of imprisonment rank alongside states such as New Jersey, Colorado and Maryland, according to the report.
Locking large numbers of people away from their jobs and families does little to reduce crime and recidivism, and the US incarceration rate has become a stain on a nation that prides itself as a “free” country. In city halls and state legislatures, policy makers of various political stripes are pursuing reforms aimed at reducing jail and prison populations. The total US prison population has seen a slight decline, but change is not coming fast enough to put a real dent in mass incarceration.Nationally, the US incarceration rate easily eclipses that of peer countries, such as the United Kingdom and Canada, largely because these countries hand out more criminal sanctions that don’t involve doing hard time, like warnings and probation. In the US, 70 percent of criminal convictions result in incarceration, compared to 34 percent in Canada and 8 percent in Germany.
A prison reform bill championed by President Trump is advancing in Congress with some bipartisan support. The bill aims to bolster participation in early-release and rehabilitation programming and includes a ban on shackling pregnant women during childbirth, but a long list of civil rights and progressive groups (including the Prison Policy Initiative) have come out against the bill.
More comprehensive legislation that included sentencing reform died in Congress in 2016 after moderate Republicans failed to garner support from hardline conservatives, including then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, who now serves as Trump’s attorney general. In a letter signed by more than 100 organizations and sent to lawmakers last month, the Leadership Council on Civil and Human Rights said the legislation, known as The FIRST STEP Act, is “well-intentioned” but “misguided.”Critics say the bill as written would not reduce the prison population in a meaningful way because it fails to address the reasons why so many people are locked up in the first place, such as mandatory minimum sentencing laws, racial sentencing disparities and a dire lack of rehabilitative resources for prisoners. Others argue it’s better than nothing, and Democrats appear split on the legislation.
“Our communities are being demonized and criminalized so we must stand firm to resist the lure of a compromise that is ultimately a false promise that may never be realized and isn’t in their best interests,” the letter states