Changes in sentencing law and policy, not changes in crime rates, explain most of the increase that has led the United States to being the world’s leader in incarceration.
To view the original research and data created by The Sentencing Project, click here.
The United States is the world's leader in incarceration with 2.2 million people currently in the nation's prisons and jails — a 500% increase over the last forty years. Changes in sentencing law and policy, not changes in crime rates, explain most of this increase. These trends have resulted in prison overcrowding and fiscal burdens on states to accommodate a rapidly expanding penal system, despite increasing evidence that large-scale incarceration is not an effective means of achieving public safety.
Sentencing policies of the War on Drugs era resulted in dramatic growth in incarceration for drug offenses. Since its official beginning in the 1980s, the number of Americans incarcerated for drug offenses has skyrocketed from 40,900 in 1980 to 443,200 in 2018. Furthermore, harsh sentencing laws such as mandatory minimums keep many people convicted of drug offenses in prison for longer periods of time: in 1986, people released after serving time for a federal drug offense had spent an average of 22 months in prison. By 2004, people convicted on federal drug offenses were expected to serve almost three times that length: 62 months in prison.
At the federal level, people incarcerated on a drug conviction make up nearly half the prison population. At the state level, the number of people in prison for drug offenses has increased ninefold since 1980, although it has begun declining in recent years. Most are not high-level actors in the drug trade, and most have no prior criminal record for a violent offense.
The number of women in prison has been increasing at twice the rate of growth for men since 1980. Women in prison often have significant histories of physical and sexual abuse, high rates of HIV, and substance abuse problems. Women’s imprisonment in female-led households leads to children who suffer from their mother’s absence and breaks in family ties.
More than 60% of the people in prison today are people of color. Black men are six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men and Hispanic men are 2.7 times as likely. For black men in their thirties, about 1 in every 12 is in prison or jail on any given day.
Since 1999, commitment to secure juvenile facilities for youth who have been adjudicated delinquent has been steadily declining from a high point of 77,835 in 1999 to 31,487 in 2015. Still, troubling problems remain. Youth of color enter the system much more frequently than white youth and are more likely to be sentenced to harsher terms of punishment. In addition, young people are transferred to the adult system each year and tried as if they were adults, and many are sent to adult prisons and jails to serve their sentences.
In 48 states, a felony conviction can result in the loss of an individual’s voting rights. The period of disenfranchisement varies by state, with some states restoring the vote upon completion of a prison term, and others effectively disenfranchising for life. As a result of the dramatic expansion of the criminal justice system in the last 40 years, felony disenfranchisement has affected the political voice of many communities. As of 2016, 6.1 million Americans were unable to vote due to state felony disenfranchisement policies.
The number of people serving life sentences with or without parole continues to grow even while serious, violent crime has been declining for the past 20 years and little public safety benefit has been demonstrated to correlate with increasingly lengthy sentences. This population has nearly quintupled since 1984. One in nine people in prison is serving a statutorily defined life sentence and nearly a third of lifers have been sentenced to life without parole.