America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, both in absolute numbers, and relative to population (only China and India have higher populations, and they have fewer people incarcerated).

What are the main reasons cited by criminologists?

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    If it's about criminology, it seems it should be on Law.SE and not politics?
    – user4012
    Mar 20, 2017 at 17:35
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    @user4012: My theory is that "crime" is defined (or viewed) differently in the U.S. than elsewhere. That would make it a political question. This may not be clear from the current, edited version, but it was clearer in my original.
    – Tom Au
    Mar 20, 2017 at 17:38
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    @user4012: In an earlier version, I asked about "minorities", and if I had a chance to re-ask the question, I would also ask about juvenile arrests, etc. These are political issues. My guess that the incarceration rates for white adults is much less than for "America" as a whole.
    – Tom Au
    Mar 20, 2017 at 17:52
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    @user4012 Crime rate is absolutely an issue with policy (and hence politics). For example, some people have suggested that the high incarceration rate is related to things being crimes when they shouldn't be, such as possession of marijuana. Also, the incarceration rate varies directly as the crime rate.
    – Era
    Mar 20, 2017 at 18:12
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    This question is absolutely on topic and should not be closed. If it is closed I will be requesting a Diamond mod to review because US Senators are proposing legislation on this very topic and thousands of articles and papers can be cited to help form an answer. If this is not Political.SE then nothing is. Mar 20, 2017 at 19:39

2 Answers 2



It profits both private industry and the political establishment to maintain high incarceration rates. The penal codes and incarceration techniques are a response to the demand for more prisoners not a reaction to crime, primarily sponsored by the think tank ALEC.

As the prison population grows, a rising rate of incarceration feeds small and large businesses such as providers of furniture, transportation, food, clothes and medical services, construction and communication firms. Furthermore, the prison system is the third largest employer in the world

It should be noted that Senator Bernie Sanders proposed the **Justice is Not for Sale Act** which states

The handful of corporations that provide correctional services profit tremendously from mass incarceration, and have lobbied, through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) for more draconian criminal laws that have the effect of increasing the incarcerated population


At yearend 2011, approximately 7 million individuals were under some form of correctional control in the United States, including 2.2 million incarcerated in federal, state, or local prisons and jails.

From the early 1970s to the present, the rate of incarceration and the number of people in prisons and private prisons has climbed dramatically in the United States, despite the rate of crime declining since the late 20th century.

The United States maintains 25% of the world's incarcerated prisoners whilst harboring only 5% of the world's population. This is known among researchers as Mass Incarceration The US's prison population dwarfs the prison populations of every other developed country in the world, including countries thought to be repressive like China and Russia.

Michelle Alexander describes Mass Incarceration as

"the criminal justice system but also to the larger web of laws, rules, policies, and customs that control those labeled criminals both in and out of prison."

In the last forty years, incarceration has increased with rates upwards of 500% despite crime rates decreasing nationally and internationally.

Link to Slavery

Ratified in 1865, the 13th amendment states in full

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

In short, slavery was abolished for everyone except criminals.

The Southern Strategy, a self-described strategy of the Republican Party to gain political support in the South by appealing to the racism against African Americans harbored by many southern white voters, was a key lever in the rise of the prison population.

Republican strategist Lee Atwater discussed the Southern strategy in a 1981 interview later published in Southern Politics in the 1990s by Alexander P. Lamis.

Atwater: You start out in 1954 by saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." By 1968 you can't say "nigger" — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, "We want to cut this," is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "Nigger, nigger."

Slavery and Private Prisons

Using the Southern Strategy and positioning themselves as the party of Law & Order; the Republican Party were able to pass legislation which disproportionately targeted African American, Latino and impoverished communities. A trend which continued under Democrat, President Bill Clinton.

Under the sentencing laws from 1960-2000, your chance of going to prison as a black male was 1 in 3. Racial minorities are more likely than white Americans to be arrested; once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted; and once convicted, they are more likely to face stiff sentences. African-American males are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white males.

Increased Sentencing Laws

America, on average, gives longer sentences than the rest of the western nations and famously uses the 3 Strikes Rule. The exact application of the three-strikes laws varies considerably from state to state, but the laws call for life sentences without possibility of release for at least 25 years on their third strike. Some states include additional, lesser offenses that one would not normally see as violent. California mandated a minimum sentence of 25-to-life so long as the first two felonies were deemed to be either "serious" or "violent". A serious crime could be as innocuous as simply "drug possession".

War on Drugs

The "War on Drugs" is a policy that was initiated by Republican Richard Nixon with the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 and vigorously pursued by Republican Ronald Reagan. By 2010, drug offenders in federal prison had increased to 500,000 per year, up from 41,000 in 1985.

According to Michelle Alexander, drug related charges accounted for more than half the rise in state prisoners between 1985 and 2000. 31 million people have been arrested on drug related charges, approximately 1 in 10 Americans. Analysis of drug related sentencing reveals that African Americans are targeted to a far greater degree; for instance the Act imposed the same five-year mandatory sentence on users of crack (typically black crime) as on those possessing 100 times as much powder cocaine (a typically white crime)

It should be noted that the majority of stronger sentencing legislation, almost everything discussed thus far, was sponsored by ALEC (more below).

As the prison population grows, a rising rate of incarceration feeds small and large businesses such as providers of furniture, transportation, food, clothes and medical services, construction and communication firms. Furthermore, the prison system is the third largest employer in the world. Prison activists who buttress the notion of a prison industrial complex have argued that these parties have a great interest in the expansion of the prison system since their development and prosperity directly depends on the number of inmates. They liken the prison industrial complex to any industry that needs more and more raw materials, prisoners being the material.

The prison industrial complex has also been said to include private businesses that benefit from the exploitation of the prison labor; prison mechanisms remove "unexploitable" labor, or so-called "underclass", from society and redefine it as highly exploitable cheap labor. Scholars have argued that the trend of "hiring out prisoners" is a continuation of the slavery tradition.

Reliance on mass imprisonment has created a financial vortex, which sucks away the majority of over $50 billion spent on corrections by the states alone. This penal entrenchment has pushed legislatures to devise ways to make criminals help foot the bill, with Legal Financial Obligations representing a modern iteration of state and local fundraising. LFOs add to an array of legal consequences that create a permanent underclass and keep a lock on individuals long after they leave prison.

Increasingly, jurisdictions across the country are assessing hefty court fines and fees, LFOs, on defendants, requiring them to pay thousands of dollars or face more jail time.

ALEC and Private Prisons / Slaves

ALEC is a Washington, D.C.-based public policy organization that provides a forum for state legislators and private sector members to collaborate on bills—draft legislation that members may customize and introduce for debate in their own state legislatures.

ALEC is so widespread that several Republican legislators have forgotten to take the ALEC logo off of the draft legislation that ALEC had given to them to introduce into the house.

ALEC has produced bills on a broad range of Republican issues, such as reducing regulation and individual and corporate taxation, combating illegal immigration, loosening environmental regulations, tightening voter identification rules, weakening labor unions and opposing gun control.

Under their Criminal Justice Task Force, ALEC has developed model bills which State legislators can then consult when proposing "tough on crime" initiatives including "Truth in Sentencing" and "Three Strikes" laws. By funding and participating in ALEC's Criminal Justice Task Forces, critics argue, private prison companies influence legislation for tougher, longer sentences. Writing in Governing magazine in 2003, Alan Greenblatt states:

ALEC has been a major force behind both privatizing state prison space and keeping prisons filled. It put forward bills providing for mandatory minimum sentences and three-strikes sentencing requirements. About 40 states passed versions of ALEC's Truth in Sentencing model bill, which requires prisoners convicted of violent crimes to serve most of their sentences without chance of parole.

In 1995 alone, ALEC’s Truth in Sentencing Act was signed into law in twenty-five states. (Then State Rep. Scott Walker was an ALEC member when he sponsored Wisconsin’s truth-in-sentencing laws and, according to PR Watch, used its statistics to make the case for the law.)

More recently, ALEC has proposed innovative “solutions” to the overcrowding it helped create, such as privatizing the parole process through “the proven success of the private bail bond industry,” as it recommended in 2007. (The American Bail Coalition is an executive member of ALEC’s Public Safety and Elections Task Force.)

In a 2011 report by the ACLU, it is claimed that the rise of the for-profit prison industry is a "major contributor" to "mass incarceration," along with bloated state budgets. Louisiana, for example, has the highest rate of incarceration in the world with the majority of its prisoners being housed in privatized, for-profit facilities. Such institutions could face bankruptcy without a steady influx of prisoners. A 2013 Bloomberg report states that in the past decade the number of inmates in for-profit prisons throughout the U.S. rose 44 percent

Free Labour

Much of ALEC’s proposed labor legislation, implemented state by state is allowing replacement of public workers with prisoners.

“It’s bad enough that our companies have to compete with exploited and forced labor in China,” says Scott Paul Executive Director of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, a coalition of business and unions. “They shouldn’t have to compete against prison labor here at home. The goal should be for other nations to aspire to the quality of life that Americans enjoy, not to discard our efforts through a downward competitive spiral.”


It should be noted that Senator Bernie Sanders proposed the **Justice is Not for Sale Act** which states

The handful of corporations that provide correctional services profit tremendously from mass incarceration, and have lobbied, through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) for more draconian criminal laws that have the effect of increasing the incarcerated population. The private prison industry has joined the ranks of most aggressive lobbyists, and the two largest companies have spent $25 million on their efforts. A rise in lobbying and direct campaign contributions has correlated with dramatic growth in private prison population, greater overall spending on corrections and a sharp increase in private company profits. The stock of the top two private prison companies together is worth over $5.5 billion.

Since the election of Donald Trump; the stocks of the two biggest private prison operators — CoreCivic (formerly know as Corrections Corp. of America) and Geo Group have doubled. CoreCivic is up 140% since President Trump won in November; Geo Group has risen 98%.

Additional Reading

Report of The Sentencing Project to the United Nations Human Rights Committee Regarding Racial Disparities in the United States Criminal Justice System

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    I remember reading an article that indicated that the war on drugs was also used as a tool to silence and disenfranchise political activists. The section on ALEC might explain this.
    – Eric Roper
    Mar 20, 2017 at 23:01
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    @Venture2099 a less obnoxious way to go about this would be to simply cite your quotes.
    – user1530
    Jun 1, 2017 at 21:19
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    Rolled back the vandalized edit Jun 1, 2017 at 22:33
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    -1 The drug overdose caused 50,000 deaths in 2016, so more than i.e. Vietnam war. The answer implies that 'war on drugs' is some kind of republican madness.
    – user14816
    Jun 19, 2017 at 6:43
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    @user14816 : The answer doesn't implies anything like that; it exposes the undeniable link between war on drugs and high rate if incarceration. However, the fact you point to, that after 40+ years of war on drugs the number of drug overdoses keeps growing is a decent argument for equating war on drugs with madness.
    – Evargalo
    Oct 22, 2019 at 13:16

Crime and incarceration

The United States has a higher crime rate than other countries. An obvious reason for this is that the US has the third highest population.

If we adjust for population, the US drops to 22nd in crimes per capita. Note that the trend has been downward for about twenty-five years (incarceration started to increase sharply around thirty-five years ago). If we substitute the older rate, the US would be about 10th.

The United States has much longer prison sentences than other countries, increasing the incarceration rate. This may result in lower recidivism, decreasing the crime rate. For example, the UK has a much higher reconviction rate on released prisoners than the US does. One potential explanation is that the US incarcerates its most dangerous prisoners for longer periods.

All else being equal, we would expect that a higher crime rate would lead to a higher incarceration rate. However, longer sentences increase the incarceration rate and hopefully decrease the crime rate. All else is not necessarily equal.

US and China

The comparison to China may be misleading, as former Chinese prisoner Harry Wu says:

“The Chinese regime has lasted 60 years until today. They have never told the people how many they have executed, how many people are in jail or how many prison camps there are. That is what I have tried to find out in the last 20 years. I have tried to find out how many camps there are. We recognise more than a thousand camps but the government says that is top secret information. That was why in 1995 the government re-arrested me at the border and had me in a camp for 66 days with a sentence of 15 years. Up till now we do not know the number. But we estimate that over the last 50-60 years more than 40-50 million people were in them.”

China also doesn't count people in detention who have not yet been convicted, while the US does.

Neither the US nor China reports the number of people executed who would otherwise be incarcerated. Executions are rare in the US, with fewer than 1500 since 1976. China executes at least that many per year.

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