The United States is the Best – at Locking People Up

The United States, the leader of the free world, turns out to be the country with the biggest percentage of its population incarcerated. Statistics from the International Center for Prison Studies reveal that 716 out of 100,000 people in the United States are currently imprisoned. Such statistics make Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to address chronic and extensive overcrowding in prisons via drug sentencing reforms all the more compelling.

As Holder said last week while addressing the American Bar Association, he is in favor of having those convicted of low-level offenses enter drug treatment and community service programs. He also seeks to expand a prison program to allow for compassionate release of some elderly, non-violent offenders. ”We need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter and rehabilitate – not merely to convict, warehouse and forget,” said Holder.

According to advance 2012 counts from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the U.S. prison population was 1,571,013, a decline for the third year in a row. In 2010, 2,270,142 people were imprisoned across the country. But the numbers of those incarcerated swell when including statistics from the city and local level; the total is then more than two million.

What is even more disturbing is that the countries that incarcerate almost as many people as the United States have very different records on human rights and democratic institutions, the chart on the Huffington Post shows. Number 2 on the list is St. Kitts and Neves. Number 5 is Rwanda, number 6 Cuba and number 7, Russia.

At 223 per 100,000, Israel is the second in incarceration rates among industrialized nations.

Massive Overcrowding in Prisons

Federal prisons are now operating at nearly 40 percent over capacity. Almost half of the 219,000 inmates have been incarcerated for drug-related crimes; many have substance use disorders. In state prisons, about 225,000 people are serving time for drug offenses. At the local level, 9 to 10 million are incarcerated every year.

Rather than constructing and expanding prisons, 17 states have been directing money to programs and services such as treatment and supervision that are designed to reduce the problems of repeat offenders. Kentucky, for instance, has passed legislation that reserves prison sentences for the most serious offenders and redirects resources into community supervision. The state predicts it will reduce its prison population by more than 3,000 over the next 10 years and thereby save more than $400 million.

It is possible that some countries could have higher prison populations than official statistics suggest. The International Center for Prison Studies estimates the prison population of China at 121 per 100,000 people but also notes that it could be 2,300,000. The latter figure would raise the prison population rate to 170 per 100,000 of the national population; the estimated rates for China are based on an estimated national population of 1.35 billion at mid-2012 (from United Nations figures) and sentenced prisoners include inmates only from Ministry of Justice prisons.

Regardless, it at least ironic that an authoritarian society like China with a poor record on human rights and free speech would have a far lower prison rate than the United States. Review of drug-sentencing protocol and prison reform cannot come too soon for this country.

Photo from Thinkstock


Jim Ven
Jim V1 years ago

thanks for the article.

Aaron Holmgren
Aaron Holmgren4 years ago

In reality, the US government is a much more dangerous opponent to human rights than countries like China that openly oppress; because the government has been forced to develop sophisticated, covert tactics that are not as easy to identify or oppose.

Aaron Holmgren
Aaron Holmgren4 years ago

It is not that the US government is any more humanist than other oppressive governments in the world; it is just that the US government has had to be a little more sly about it, and oppress people in non-obvious ways, since the US has a constitution that tends to get in the governments way. Governments, like that of China, can stamp all over people's rights openly; while US has to do it in a convoluted, round-about way, so that the complacent minds of the population will not realize what is happening.

Past Member
lynda l4 years ago


Kevin Brown
Kevin Brown4 years ago

Lol David F., still the shill of your corporate overlords I see. Tell me, how do their boots taste? I mean, you spend so much time licking the boots of your corporate masters that I figure you must know.

Take decent course in history David. Look at the state of capitalism before the progressive movement and you will see one of the most evil, unjust, horrid systems in human history.

Step out of the imaginary world of the right wing bubble David, and stop being a "quisling" for your corporate masters.

Patricia H.
Patricia H.4 years ago

thanks for posting

Brenda Towers
Brenda Towers4 years ago

Only the seriously dangerous to society shoud be locked up. Other criminals should be made to PAY for their crimes by hard labour, and reinbursement to society.

Bryna Pizzo
Bryna Pizzo4 years ago

We live in a nation ruled by corporate interests entirely, and the effects will be devastating to the entire nation. Those who do not see the danger of what is happening are in for a rude awakening, and I pity them because they have supported the members of Congress who have sold this nation to the highest bidder. May the Creator help us all.

Mari s
Mari 's4 years ago

Legalize marijuana & hemp already!!!!

Paul H.
Paul H4 years ago

For non-violent, victimless "crimes", a fine should be the harshest punishment, if indeed a crime was committed. To toke a J in one's home should not be a crime, so long as one STAYS at home and does not get out on the roads and endanger the public while intoxicated.

Part of our problem is the "lock 'em up and throw away the key" mentality. Private prisons are nothing but corrupt money-makers, and the judicial system "buys" right into it. Jail should be last resort - an offender should do community service or other "pay back" programs as fitting the crime being punished for.

I was impressed by the extra feature Michael Moore did on Norway's prison system. Oh sure, they've got problems there too, but I doubt theirs is anywhere near as bad as ours is.