Comparison of United States incarceration rate with other countries
The United States has the largest prison population in the world, and the second-highest per-capita incarceration rate, behind Seychelles (which in 2014 had a total prison population of 735 out of a population of around 92,000). In 2013 in the USA, there were 698 persons incarcerated per 100,000 population.
While the United States represents about 4.4 percent of the world’s population, it houses around 22 percent of the world’s prisoners.
Comparing other English-speaking developed countries, the incarceration rate of the Republic of Ireland is 85 per 100,000 (as of 2014), Canada is 106 per 100,000 (as of 2014), England and Wales is 148 per 100,000 (as of 2015), and Australia is 151 per 100,000 (as of 2015). Comparing other developed countries, the rate of Spain is 141 per 100,000 (as of 2015), Greece is 120 per 100,000 (as of 2013), Norway is 71 per 100,000 (as of 2015), Netherlands is 75 per 100,000 (as of 2013), and Japan is 49 per 100,000 (as of 2014).
Comparing other countries with similar percentages of immigrants, Germany has a rate of 76 per 100,000 (as of 2014), Italy is 85 per 100,000 (as of 2015), and Saudi Arabia is 161 per 100,000 (as of 2013). Comparing other countries with a zero tolerance policy for illegal drugs, the rate of Russia is 455 per 100,000 (as of 2015), Kazakhstan is 275 per 100,000 (as of 2015), Singapore is 220 per 100,000 (as of 2014), and Sweden is 60 per 100,000 (as of 2014).
The incarceration rate of the People’s Republic of China varies depending on sources and measures. According to the International Centre for Prison Studies, the rate for only sentenced prisoners is 120 per 100,000 (as of 2009) and the rate for prisoners including those in administrative detention and pre-trial detainees is 186 per 100,000 (as of 2009). Su Jiang assessed the incarceration rate for all forms of imprisonment in China at 218 prisoners per 100,000 population. The total number of prisoners held, 1.6 million, is second to that of the United States despite its population being over four times larger. Harry Wu, a U.S.-based human rights activist and ex-Chinese labor camp prisoner, estimates that “in the last 60 years, more than 40–50 million people” were in Chinese labor camps.
U.S. incarceration rate peaked in 2008
Total US incarceration (prisons and jails) peaked in 2008. On January 1, 2008 more than 1 in 100 adults in the United States were in prison or jail. Total correctional population (prison, jail, probation, parole) peaked in 2007. If all prisoners are counted (including juvenile, territorial, ICE, Indian country, and military), then in 2008 the USA had around 24.7% of the world’s 9.8 million prisoners.
A 2008 New York Times article, said that “it is the length of sentences that truly distinguishes American prison policy. Indeed, the mere number of sentences imposed here would not place the United States at the top of the incarceration lists. If lists were compiled based on annual admissions to prison per capita, several European countries would outpace the United States. But American prison stays are much longer, so the total incarceration rate is higher.”
In the United States, women make up more than one tenth of the whole prison population. In most countries, the proportion of female inmates to the larger population is closer to one in twenty. Australia is the exception where the rate of female imprisonment increased from 9.2 percent in 1991 to 15.3 percent in 1999.
In addition, the United States has significant racial disparities in rates of incarceration. According to Michelle Alexander, the United States “imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid”. The black imprisonment rate of South Africa could not have come close to today’s American rate simply due to limited room. Notably, there’s something of an international theme in countries comparing themselves to apartheid South Africa. There were instances where Australian journalists were drawing the same contrast relative to rates of imprisonment in their country. In the Huffington Post piece “Mass Incarceration’s Failure”, attorney Antonio Moore states “The incarceration rate for young black men ages 20 to 39, is nearly 10,000 per 100,000. To give context, during the racial discrimination of apartheid in South Africa, the prison rate for black male South Africans, rose to 851 per 100,000.”
A major contributor to the high incarceration rates is the length of the prison sentences in the United States. One of the criticisms of the United States system is that it has much longer sentences than any other part of the world. The typical mandatory sentence for a first-time drug offense in federal court is five or ten years, compared to other developed countries around the world where a first time offense would warrant at most 6 months in jail. Mandatory sentencing prohibits judges from using their discretion and forces them to place longer sentences on nonviolent offenses than they normally would do.
Even though there are other countries that have a higher rate of committing inmates to prison annually, the fact that the United States keeps their prisoners longer causes the total incarceration rate to become higher. To give an example, the average burglary sentence in the United States is 16 months, compared to 5 months in Canada and 7 months in England.
The US incarceration rate peaked in 2008 when about 1 in 100 US adults was behind bars. This incarceration rate exceeded the average incarceration levels in the Soviet Union during the existence of the infamous Gulag system, when the Soviet Union’s population reached 168 million, and 1.2 to 1.5 million people were in the Gulag prison camps and colonies (i.e. about 0.8 imprisoned per 100 USSR residents, according to numbers from Anne Applebaum and Steven Rosefielde). The Soviet Union’s incarceration rates from 1934 to 1953 were historically the world’s highest for a modern age country, according to the controversial The Gulag Archipelago book (1973) by Nobel Prize winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. In The New Yorker article The Caging of America (2012), Adam Gopnik writes: “Over all, there are now more people under ‘correctional supervision’ in America—more than six million—than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height.