Incarceration rates have gone up really, really fast

I knew — everybody knows, right? — that the US imprisons a lot more people than it used to, but I don’t think I’d really appreciated the magnitude of the change over my lifetime.

This chart goes up to 2001. By 2009 the incarceration rate was 743 per 100,000 population, something like five times what it was when I was a kid. Possibly it is just now starting to drop.

15 thoughts on “Incarceration rates have gone up really, really fast

  1. The drug war began in 1971.

  2. Thads says:

    “The only way to make our streets safe is to have nobody on them because they are all in prison.” — Private Eye

  3. Richard Séguin says:

    It was a number of years ago that spending on prisons in Wisconsin began to overtake spending on the entire UW system. Due to recent budget cuts, I’m betting that prisons now cost Wisconsin taxpayers more than higher education. There’s big money in the construction, maintenance, and administration of prisons, and I would bet that there are lobbyists involved.

    I think I just heard on the radio as I’m writing this that California also spends more on prisons than education.

  4. Rob H. says:

    But is this increase anthropogenic?

  5. piper says:

    i want to make a sarcastic remark about race, but what if someone doesn’t know it’s sarcasm?! still, i’m curious how the fox news crowd views this in light of the fact that there were people of color before 1970.

  6. piper says:

    also there’s a scary rumor on the internet about private prisons being responsible for pushing gansta rap music back in the day. kanye raps about it, so it must be true. though looking at this chart, maybe it was not necessary.

  7. byesac says:

    Sad. I don’t know why you decided on the “political” tag over, say, “culture”. Maybe it’s political, but maybe it’s just people committing more and more heinous crimes.

  8. JSE says:

    Just because I have a “politics” category but not a “culture” category. At any rate, I think the decisions we make about whom to imprison are clearly political (and cultural!) By the way, crime of all kind in the US has been on the downslope for a long time.

  9. byesac says:

    Fair enough. I’m sure you’ve read Steven Levitt’s explanation of declining crime numbers in “Freakonomics” – which is also kind of sad.

  10. You may want to look at the chart on top of page 1755 (the 5th page of the PDF) of the paper “From the Asylum to the Prism” by Harcourt. It seems that the sum of the incarceration rate and the mental institutionalization rate has been fairly stable [but I have no personal expertise on this; quite possibly the correlation is spurious].

  11. Prism = Prison. Sorry.

  12. Richard Séguin says:

    Lior: Your link doesn’t seem to work. I’ve heard that there are in fact many mentally ill people in prison, and that this is at least partly a result of the policy of deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill that began years ago. And then there are the people who develop mental illness as a result of solitary confinement …

    But I’m not sure how this would explain the sum of rates being stable since the prisons are also now packed with people arrested for drug offenses. Are mentally ill people with drug problems much more apt to be arrested than those who are not mentally ill?

  13. Richard: you’re right. The institionalization rate dropped from mid-50s to mid-70s with the prison rate being stable; The incarceration rate started climbing in the mid-70s while institutionalization rate kept decreasing slowly. By 2000 the total incarceration rate has returned to the levels it had between 1940-1960.

    I suspect mentally ill people are much less likely able to avoid prison time.

  14. Matthew Kahle says:

    Interesting to compare with the following fact:
    “The modern private prison business first emerged and established itself publicly in 1984 when the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) was awarded a contract to take over a facility in Hamilton County, Tennessee.”

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