Americans Behind Bars:
The International Use of Incarceration,
By Marc Mauer, Assistant Director, The Sentencing Project
This report was written by Marc Mauer, Assistant Director of The Sentencing Project.
The author wishes to thank William Sabol and staff of The Sentencing Project for comments
and suggestions in preparing this report.
The Sentencing Project is a national non-profit organization which promotes sentencing
reform and conducts research on criminal justice issues. Research and preparation of this
report was supported by grants from The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, the Public
Welfare Foundation, and by individual contributions.
Copyright © 1994, The Sentencing Project
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AMERICANS BEHIND BARS:
THE INTERNATIONAL USE OF INCARCERATION, 1992-93
Interest in international comparisons on the use of incarceration has increased in recent
years. From the Singapore caning of Michael Fay to changes in the use of prisons in
eastern Europe to the use of prison labor in China, attention has focused on the ways in
which nations utilize different sentencing policies.
In recent years, we have issued two prior reports comparing international rates of
incarceration. These reports documented that the United States had become the world leader
in its rate of incarceration, having surpassed South Africa and the former Soviet Union,
and that the black male rate of incarceration in the U.S. far exceeded that of black males
in South Africa.
We now look again at these issues, in what is the most comprehensive survey to date on
international rates of incarceration. The main findings of this report are the following:
· Russia has now surpassed the United States to become the world leader in its rate of
incarceration, with 558 citizens per 100,000 population in its prison system. The rise of
organized crime, political instability, and the transition to an uncertain economic future
have all played a factor in crime rates and the use of imprisonment.
· With 1.3 million Americans behind bars, the U.S. rate of incarceration is 519 per
100,000, second in the world among the 52 nations covered in this survey. The U.S. rate
has increased by 22 percent since 1989, and is generally 5-8 times the rate of most
· A racial breakdown of the U.S. inmate population shows that African-Americans are
incarcerated at a rate that is more than six times that of whites -- 1,947 per 100,000,
compared to 306 per 100,000.
· Black males in the U.S. are incarcerated at more than four times the rate of black
males in South Africa -- 3,822 per 100,000 versus 851 per 100,000.
· The cost of incarceration nationally in the U.S. is estimated at $26.8 billion
annually. Estimated costs of incarceration for African-American males are $11.6 billion
· The number of AfricanAmerican males in prisons and jails in the U.S. 583,000 is greater
than the number of AfricanAmerican males enrolled in higher education 537,000.
· Drug, property and public order offenders accounted for 84 percent of the 155 percent
increase in new court commitments to state prison from 1980 to 1992, while violent
offenders accounted for only 16 percent of the increase.
As we have stated in past reports, a nation's rate of incarceration in itself only
describes one aspect of its criminal justice or social policies. For example, a nation
with a high rate of incarceration might have a high rate of crime, a harsh sentencing
system, a politically repressive government, or some combination of these and other
factors. Similarly, one cannot assume that nations with low incarceration rates
necessarily have low crime rates or are respectful of civil liberties. For example, the
cost of largescale incarceration is prohibitive for many Third World nations, so they
maintain a low imprisonment rate. Other nations maintain a relatively low incarceration
rate, yet have brutal conditions of confinement. In Zaire, for example, although the
incarceration rate is a relatively modest 88 per 100,000, it has been reported that nearly
7.5 percent of the inmates in the prison system die each year due to malnutrition and poor
With these cautions in mind, we look at the dramatically high rate of incarceration in the
United States and attempt to assess the factors that have created the anomaly of one of
the wealthiest nations in the world sharing the unenviable position of incarceration
leader with its former Cold War rival Russia. Whatever the mix of crime rates, criminal
justice policies, or social policies that have led to this situation, the rate of
incarceration in the United States is so much higher than in comparable nations that it
requires a close examination of the various causal factors. Given the renewed "law
and order" climate in the country, we also examine the anticipated impact of
newlyadopted legislation and conclude with recommendations for what we believe would be a
more rational criminal justice policy.
INTERNATIONAL RATES OF INCARCERATION, 1992-93
NATION Number of Rate NATION Number of Rate of
Inmates of Inmates Incarc.*
Australia 15,895 91 Luxembourg 352 92
Austria 6,913 88 Macau 600 158
Bangladesh 39,539 37 Malaysia 22,473 122
Belgium 7,116 71 Mexico 86,334 97
Brazil 124,000 84 Netherlands 7,935 49
Brunei 186 70 New Zealand 4,694 135
Bulgaria 8,688 102 Northern Ireland 1,901 126
Canada 30,659 116 Peru (est.) 20,000 91
Cyprus 193 32 Philippines 16,122 30
Czech Republic 16,368 158 Poland 62,139 160
Denmark 3,406 66 Portugal 9,183 93
Egypt 35,392 62 Republic of Ireland 2,155 62
England/Wales 53,518 93 Romania 44,011 193
Fiji 731 96 Russia 829,000 558
Finland 3,295 65 Singapore 6,420 229
France 51,457 84 Slovak Republic 6,517 123
Germany 64,029 80 Solomon Islands 179 56
Greece 6,252 60 South Africa 114,047 368
Hong Kong 10,576 179 Spain 35,246 90
Iceland 101 39 Sri Lanka 10,470 60
India 196,221 23 Swaziland 760 88
Indonesia 41,121 22 Sweden 5,668 69
Italy 46,152 80 Switzerland 5,751 85
Japan 45,183 36 Thailand 90,864 159
Kiribati 81 112 United States 1,339,695 519
Korea (South) 62,711 144 Western Samoa 197 122
* Rate per 100,000 population
INCARCERATION RATES FOR SELECTED NATIONS
United States 519
South Africa 368
Hong Kong 179
New Zealand 135
Rates of Incarceration per 100,000 Population
INTERNATIONAL TRENDS IN THE USE OF INCARCERATION
As can be seen in Figure 1, the Russian Republic has now replaced the United States as
the world leader in its use of incarceration, with a rate of incarceration of 558 per
100,000. By all accounts, this has been the result of a greatly increased use of
incarceration since the fall of the Soviet Union. For comparative purposes, estimates of
the use of incarceration by the Soviet Union in 1989 ranged from 268 to 353 per 100,000.
A variety of factors have led to the increased use of incarceration in Russia. News
accounts have discussed the rise of organized crime, coming at a time of much economic and
political instability. As the country moves toward a market economy, the social disruption
and loss of a limited social "safety net" for some may contribute to higher
crime rates. It has been reported that during the first quarter of 1994, there was an
average of 84 murders a day in Russia, a per capita rate that is about double that of the
U.S. The use of the prison system for political prisoners, both in the past and at
present, is an issue for which there are few precise figures. The State Department has
also reported that because the court system does not have the resources to handle the
increasing number of arrests, defendants are often held in pretrial detention for more
than a year without judicial review.
While comparative data are not readily available, some reports indicate that the high rate
of incarceration in Russia may be in good part a result of harsher sentencing practices
than other nations, and not primarily differences in crime rates. Comparing prison
populations and sentencing practices in Russia to England and Wales, Roy D. King concluded
that "it would seem that many offenders are swept into the prison system for much
more trivial offences, for much longer periods, and at much earlier points in their
criminal careers [in Russia] than would be the case in Britain."
The rate of incarceration in South Africa continues to remain far above that of most other
nations as well, at 368 per 100,000 population. It should be noted that these figures are
from the end of 1993, prior to the historic change of government in 1994. Therefore, it is
too early to know what changes, if any, will be instituted by the new government. One
early indication of a possible direction was a reduction of almost all prison sentences by
six months following a nationwide series of prison disturbances in June, 1994.
In a number of European countries, though not all, incarceration rates have been rising in
recent years. In the Netherlands, long considered a leader in the limited use of
incarceration, the rate of incarceration doubled during the 1980s. Even with this
increase, however, the country's current rate of 49 per 100,000 still places it at
onetenth the U.S. rate and far below most industrialized nations.
Comparing data for 1989 from our first report, we find that Italy's rate of incarceration
increased by 33 percent in the period 198992, while Austria, Spain, and Switzerland
registered gains in the 1416 percent range, and France and Denmark were virtually
In the U.S., which was the world leader in 1989, incarceration rates have increased by 22
percent from 426 per 100,000 in 1989 to 519 per 100,000 for 199293. Thus, the rate of
incarceration in the U.S. is approximately five to eight times the rate of Canada and most
European nations. With a total of 1.3 million inmates in the U.S., at an estimated annual
cost of incarceration of $20,000 a year, the national cost of imprisonment in the U.S. is
approximately $26.8 billion. Costs of incarceration for the 583,000 incarcerated
African-American males are estimated at $11.6 billion annually.
As has been seen in previous reports, the rate of incarceration for African-American males
is a major component of the high U.S. rates. Tables 2 and 3 below compare racial
differences in incarceration in the U.S. and South Africa while still under apartheid.
U.S. INCARCERATION RATES BY RACE (MALE AND FEMALE)
Race # of Inmates Rate of Incarceration
Black 626,207 1947
White 658,233 306
INCARCERATION OF BLACK MALES
Nation # of Black Male Inmates Rate of Incarceration
United States 583,024 3822
South Africa 106,107 851
WHY DOES THE UNITED STATES HAVE SUCH A HIGH RATE OF INCARCERATION?
It would appear logical in many respects to assume that a high rate of incarceration
is a direct response to high crime rates. In recent years, though, many criminologists and
policymakers have concluded that imprisonment rates are to a great degree a function of
criminal justice and social policies that either encourage or discourage the use of
incarceration. The current wave of "Three Strikes and You're Out" proposals
illustrates this well. States that have passed such legislation will soon experience an
increase in their prison populations of varying degrees depending on the scope of the
legislation. While one can debate whether or not these policies are appropriate or will
have an impact on crime, it is clear that conscious policy choices are creating a higher
rate of imprisonment.
We can see this as well by comparing incarceration rates among the states, where we find
that a state's use of imprisonment is not necessarily directly related to its crime rate.
For example, while Louisiana had the nation's highest rate of incarceration in 1992 and
also had a high crime rate (fifth in the nation), Oklahoma was third in its imprisonment
rate despite being just 21st in its crime rate.
At the other end of the spectrum, North Dakota was lowest in the nation in both crime and
incarceration rates, but Mississippi was 40th nationally in its rate of incarceration
despite having the 16th highest crime rate. Decisions made by legislators and criminal
justice officials, including sentencing legislation, parole policies, and the availability
of sentencing options and community resources, all play a role in determining
In the following sections, we examine several factors that might be thought to contribute
to the high rate of incarceration in the United States. These include:
- overall crime rates
- violent crime rates
- severity of sentencing policies
- cultural attitudes toward punishment
Does the United States Have a High Rate of Incarceration Because of Higher Crime Rates
Than Other Nations?
As we have seen, high incarceration rates can be a function of high crime rates,
criminal justice policies, or social policies in other areas that influence crime. Some
persons contend that the United States has a high rate of incarceration due to its high
rate of crime or violent crime rate, compared to other nations.
Although there are a number of methodological problems involved in comparing crime and
incarceration rates among nations, criminologists have attempted to study this issue in a
variety of ways. A recent survey of this issue looked at whether incarceration rates in
six industrialized nations (England and Wales, West Germany, France, New Zealand,
Netherlands, and Sweden) could be explained by national crime rates. The conclusion was
that "only a small measure of the differences in prison population between one
jurisdiction and another or the changes in prison populations within particular
jurisdictions seem to be related to crime rates."
Further, the assumption that crime rates are substantially higher in the U.S. than in
other industrialized nations is not true for most offenses. A comprehensive survey of
victimization rates in the industrialized world conducted by the Dutch Ministry of Justice
documented that rates of property crime and some assaultive crimes in the U.S. are not
significantly different than in many comparable nations. The twenty nation survey found
that four nations (New Zealand, Netherlands, Canada, and Australia) exceeded the U.S. rate
of victimization for the eleven crimes surveyed, including robbery, burglary, and car
theft. Among individual offenses, the survey found that burglary rates in the U.S. were
exceeded by New Zealand, Czechoslovakia, Australia, and Canada; that England, Australia,
and New Zealand had higher rates of car theft; and that five nations (Czechoslovakia,
Poland, Australia, Canada, and West Germany) had higher rates of sexual assault against
The victimization survey also confirms that the commission of a crime is to a certain
extent a result of opportunity. For example, car theft rates are highest in countries
where automobile ownership is high (such as the U.S., Australia, and England), while
bicycle thefts also correlate with high ownership rates (as in the Netherlands and
Sweden). Similarly, burglary rates are highest in countries with a significant proportion
of semidetached or detached homes (including the U.S., Poland, England, and Australia).
These findings have implications for crime prevention, such as making greater use of mass
The data on crime victimization overall, therefore, does not provide an explanation for
the high incarceration rate in the U.S. While it remains possible that crime rates account
for part of the difference in rates of incarceration, the magnitude of the difference
between the U.S. and other nations is so great that overall crime rates cannot account for
Do Rates of Violent Crime Explain the High Rate of Incarceration in the U.S.?
Looking at rates of violent crime, we see sharper distinctions between the U.S. and
most industrialized nations, in large part due to the role of firearms in U.S. crime
rates. Rates of assault and murder with firearms are far higher in the U.S. than in
comparable nations, with murder rates in the U.S. generally five to ten times the rate of
most European nations. Since a violent offender is generally more likely to be
incarcerated upon conviction than a nonviolent offender, a higher violent crime rate would
be expected to result in a higher imprisonment rate.
We do not have sufficient data to analyze the relative proportions of violent and
nonviolent offenders in other prison systems, or to assess how they compare to the U.S. in
this regard. What is available, though, is information regarding the increase in the
American prison population in recent years. Examining these data demonstrates that the
substantial rise in the inmate population since 1980 was not primarily due to
incarceration of violent offenders.
As seen in Table 4 below, data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics show that new court
commitments to state prison increased by 155 percent from 1980 to 1992. A breakdown of
this increase, though, shows that violent offenders accounted for only 16 percent of this
increase, with the remaining 84 percent being due to increased incarceration of drug and
property offenders and persons convicted of public order offenses. Thus, while it may be
true that part of the explanation for high incarceration rates in the U.S. is due to
higher rates of violent crime, this is clearly not the primary factor behind the
unprecedented increase in the prison population that we have seen in recent years.
INCREASE IN NEW COURT COMMITMENTS
TO STATE PRISON BY CRIME TYPE,
Court Court Increase % of Total
Offense Commitments Commitments 1980-92 Increase
Total 131,215 334,301 203,086 100%
Violent 63,200 95,300 32,100 16%
Property 53,900 104,300 50,400 25%
Drug 8,900 102,000 93,100 46%
Public order 5,200 29,400 24,200 12%
do not add up
to 100% due
and a small
and Allen J.
Are Sentencing Policies in the U.S. Harsher Than in Other Nations?
Another way to explore this issue is to examine relative sentences in different
nations for convicted offenders. Those who contend that the high rate of incarceration in
the U.S. is primarily a product of high crime rates suggest that a comparison of
sentencing policies is necessary in order to ascertain whether the U.S. is more punitive
than other nations on a per crime basis. The evidence on this issue is somewhat mixed, but
does not necessarily support the contention that high crime rates are the sole explanation
for the high rate of incarceration in the U.S.
A 1987 study conducted by the Justice Department examined imprisonment decisions for the
crimes of burglary, robbery, and theft in the U.S. compared with Canada, England, and the
former West Germany. The study found that the chances of receiving a prison term for an
arrest on these offenses was roughly comparable in the U.S., Canada, and England, but
lower, particularly for theft, in West Germany. A key issue that was not addressed in the
study, though, was comparative length of sentence. It is possible, for example, that while
convicted offenders in the U.S. are sentenced to prison at comparable rates to
these two other nations, sentence lengths in the U.S. may be longer or shorter than
in other countries.
In fact, European comparisons by Young and Brown found that sentence length was in fact a
more critical variable than prison admissions in determining prison populations. In
looking at the Netherlands and Sweden, both of which have low rates of incarceration, they
concluded that the rate of sentencing to prisons was comparable to other nations, but that
shorter average sentences accounted for the difference in incarceration rates.
One of the few studies that have attempted to compare the U.S. with other nations,
although with some methodological limitations, came to the conclusion that U.S. sentencing
practices were in fact more severe. In an examination of sentencing practices in the U.S.
and France, Richard Frase looked at whether crime rates, and particularly violent crime,
could explain the substantial difference in incarceration rates between the two nations.
His conclusion was that even controlling for differences in crime rates, American
sentencing severity the use of prison as a sentence and the length of prison sentences was
almost twice as high as in France. (By a somewhat more conservative estimation technique,
Frase still estimated that American sentencing severity was about 50 percent greater than
One limitation of the U.S. studies is that they analyze data from the early 1980s.
Sentencing patterns in the U.S. have changed substantially since that time, with there now
being a greater likelihood of incarceration for many offenses. Bureau of Justice
Statistics data show that for every 1,000 arrests, the commitment rate to state prison has
increased by 6 percent for robbery, 29 percent for aggravated assault, 49 percent for
burglary, and fully 447 percent for drugs from 1980 to 1992. For drug offenses in
particular, the length of imprisonment is also increasing in many jurisdictions due to the
impact of mandatory sentencing laws. While we do not have data describing sentencing
trends in other nations during this period, the changes in U.S. drug policy in particular
suggest that the incarceration differential with other nations may continue to increase
for some period of time.
A Cross-National Look at Sentence Length
If in fact sentence length is a key variable in understanding relative rates of
incarceration, then the question is why different nations impose varying degrees of
sentence length on offenders. Recent research in this area, analyzed by Warren Young and
Mark Brown, provides some provocative conclusions. After reviewing explanations for
harsher sentencing policies that look at issues such as unemployment rates and public
policy decisions, they conclude that these do not provide sufficient correlations for
crossnational distinctions. They find instead that the most substantial explanation lies
in the cultural attitudes of a society; that is, what most people would consider the
Attitudes toward punishment tend to be shared within a society and affect decisionmaking
regarding the harshness of sentencing. But why are some nations more punitive than others?
Research by Wilkins and Pease suggests that "a society's penal climate or its
relative punitiveness is linked to its relative egalitarianism: the greater a society's
tolerance of inequality, the more extreme the scale of punishment utilized." Thus,
sentencing severity is a type of negative reward for those at one end of the spectrum,
compared to the positive rewards of income and status. A society like the United States,
therefore, premised on a strong degree of individualism and with greater disparity of
wealth than most industrialized nations, will be more likely to display harsher cultural
attitudes toward sentencing policy than a nation with a broader social welfare system.
The implications of this analysis are quite profound, for it suggests that changes in
criminal justice policy alone will not eliminate the differential in international rates
of incarceration. This is not to deny the importance of changes in criminal justice
policy, which can have a significant impact for sentencing of many offenders. The analysis
tells us, though, that if a society is committed to lowering its rate of incarceration,
either on fiscal or moral grounds, an overall reevaluation of cultural attitudes and
values that determine sentencing policy needs to be initiated.
Summary: Toward an Understanding of Crime and Incarceration
What can we conclude from this assessment of crime rates and incarceration? Several
key themes emerge:
1. Crime rates for most property crimes and some assaultive offenses in the U.S. are not
significantly greater than for other industrialized nations, and therefore are not a major
explanation for the high rate of incarceration in the U.S.
2. Higher rates of violent crime in the U.S. are responsible for at least part of the
nation's high incarceration rate compared to other nations. The dramatic increase in the
prison population since 1980, though, was not primarily a result of sentencing greater
numbers of violent offenders, since violent offenders represented only 16 percent of the
increase in court commitments from 1980 to 1992.
3. The impact of the "war on drugs" has been responsible for much of the
increase in the prison population, with 46 percent of new court commitments since 1980
being due to drug offenses.
4. Crossnational comparisons of rates of incarceration suggest that the length of prison
sentences, rather than the number of persons sentenced to prison is the main determinant
of differing rates of incarceration. Thus, alternatives to incarceration may have some
impact on lowering a jurisdiction's incarceration rate, but this will generally be of less
magnitude than altering sentence lengths.
5. Once prisons are built, they are in many respects a selfperpetuating entity. Prisons
are constructed to last for 50100 years and their continued use over time contributes to a
culture that makes their use seem logical and rational. While few persons would argue with
the necessity for a certain level of imprisonment in society, it is far from clear that
incarceration is the only, or best, means of either preventing or controlling crime. A
broad range of policies both within and outside the criminal justice system exist to
accomplish these objectives, and different nations make use of these resources to varying
degrees. Unless incarceration is examined in this context, policymakers will be confronted
with a set of crime control options that is much more restrictive than necessary.
WHAT HAS BEEN THE IMPACT OF INCREASED INCARCERATION ON CRIME?
While there are a variety of reasons why judges sentence offenders to prison, the
underlying goal is to reduce crime, whether accomplished through incapacitation,
deterrence, or rehabilitation in prison. Given the enormous increase in the use of
imprisonment in the past two decades, along with heightened public concern about crime, it
is critical to examine the effect these policies have had on public safety.
There is a small body of opinion, generally represented by the National Rifle Association
and its allies, that contends that the prison buildup of the 1980s had a dramatic effect
on crime rates and that "Incarceration works." This assertion turns out to be
based on serious distortions of criminal justice data. The NRA claims, for example, that
the 150 percent increase in incarceration from 1980 to 1991 led to a 24 percent drop in
"serious victimization." Upon closer examination, however, the NRA definition of
"serious victimization" includes violent crimes, but also the nonviolent crime
of burglary, one of the FBI's seven Index offenses. While burglary rates did decline
during the 1980s their inclusion with violent crimes distorts actual trends. Had the NRA
included the Index offense of auto theft rather than burglary in its calculations, the
results would have been very different, since auto theft victimization increased by 33
percent during this period. Looking only at violent crime, we find that the more than
doubling of the prison population paralleled a 4 percent decline in violent crime during
The "relationship" claimed by the NRA also turns out to be one that is not
consistent over time. By breaking down crime and incarceration into two periods, 198086
and 198691, as seen below in Tables 5 and 6, we find that incarceration rates rose by 65
percent and violent crime declined by 16 percent in the first period, but that from 1986
to 1991, despite the fact that imprisonment rose 51 percent, violent crime also increased,
by 15 percent. Clearly, no cause and effect relationship can be discerned here.
CHANGES IN IMPRISONMENT
1980 - 1991
1980 1986 Change 1986 1991 Change
Prisoners 329,821 545,378 +65% 545,378 824,133 + 51%
CHANGES IN VICTIMIZATION RATES
1980 - 1991
1980 1986 Change 1986 1991 Change
Burglary 84.3 61.5 -27% 61.5 53.9 -12%
Murder* 0.102 0.086 -16% 0.086 0.098 +14%
Rape 0.9 0.7 -22% 0.7 0.9 +29%
Robbery 6.6 5.1 -23% 5.1 5.9 +16%
Assault 25.8 22.3 -15% 22.3 25.5 +14%
Total Violent Crime 33.4 28.2 -16% 28.2 32.4 +15%
* Murder rates, reported by the FBI per 100,000, are shown to three decimal places in
order to observe trends.
What about crime rates overall, though, in addition to violent crime? Here, too, we see no
consistent impact. Some crimes, such as burglary and larceny, have declined steadily since
1980. Others, such as auto theft, have increased significantly. One measure of crime's
impact on society is the financial harm suffered by victims. In this regard, the increase
in auto theft has been far more costly, since the median loss to victims ($3,600) is
substantially greater than for victims of burglary or larceny ($50 and $55 respectively).
Again, any overall positive gains in crime control are difficult to discern.
More sophisticated studies, such as those of Patrick A. Langan, have attempted to look at
this issue as well, and have suggested that increased incarceration may have had some
impact on crime rates. Yet in a comparative study of the use of incarceration in England
and the United States he concludes that "Existing evidence does not suggest that
crime can be dramatically reduced simply by putting more offenders behind bars," and
that "modest reductions in crime may be possible, but major and lasting reductions
probably will require social intervention techniques, such as parent training or preschool
intellectual enrichment programs."
Two other issues bear on this relationship as well. First, as we have noted in previous
reports, demographic issues play a significant role in crime rates, since young males
produce disproportionately high rates of crime. As criminologists Darrell Steffensmeier
and Miles Harer have noted, most of the change in crime rates in the period 198088 can be
explained by changes in the proportion of the population in the age group 1524.
Second, the impact of drug crimes and arrests adds another dimension to this analysis,
since drug offenses are not covered as part of the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports, or
what is generally described as the "crime rate." Since there are no data on the
number of drug crimes that are committed, we can only look to statistics on drug arrests
for general trends, where we find that drug arrests doubled during the 1980s. Some experts
have speculated that the decline in some offenses such as burglary during this period may
represent a shift in crime patterns from burglary to lowlevel drug dealing, and not
necessarily an overall reduction in criminal activity.
Finally, some advocates of increased incarceration contend that had the large buildup of
the prison population not taken place, crime rates would have been even higher than they
already are. This type of speculation can be neither proved nor disproved, but if one
believes that crime would have increased, then there must have been some specific factors
causing this. They may have included poverty, drug abuse, poor education, and family
breakdown, among others. Addressing these problems should have more of an impact on crime
than continuing to expand the prison population.
WHY HASN'T INCARCERATION HAD MORE IMPACT ON CRIME?
Common sense would tell us that locking up offenders should have an impact on crime.
Certainly, some offenders are incapacitated or deterred through incarceration. What seems
surprising at first, though, is the relatively limited nature of this impact, particularly
given the massive use of incarceration in the United States. An examination of three key
issues in demographics and criminal justice processing, though, reveals why the prison
system has such a modest impact on crime:
1. The "Criminal Justice Funnel"
First, the criminal justice system operates as a "funnel." At the top of the
funnel are all the crimes that are committed, and at the bottom, the number of offenders
sentenced to prison. The slope of the funnel is quite steep since for many offenses, the
crime is never reported to the police, an arrest is not made, a conviction is not
obtained, or an offender is not sentenced to prison. Generally, fewer than 3 percent of
all serious crimes result in a prison sentence.
One unknown variable is the fact that some convicted offenders have committed additional
crimes which have gone undetected. Incarcerating these offenders therefore responds to
more than just the single crime of conviction. Yet even if we multiply the 3 percent
figure by a factor of five or ten, it is clear that the system is still only able to use
incarceration for a relative handful of serious offenses.
2. The Impact of Demographics
The prison system is also limited by the impact of demographics; in particular the
fact that a disproportionate number of crimes is committed by 1518 yearold males. For the
crimes of burglary, robbery, and assault, for example, the peak age of crime commission is
18. Within six years, these rates are half their peak. This "aging out" of crime
phenomenon has two implications for policy: 1) for each succeeding year that offenders are
locked up in prison, fewer crimes are being prevented than the year before; and, 2) unless
the factors leading to high crime rates in the 1518 year age range are addressed,
incarceration will remain an "after the fact" response that fails to address the
new annual cohort of potential offenders.
3. The "Replacement" Effect
Finally, the "replacement" effect of crime commission limits the utility of
incarceration as a means of crime control. As we have seen most clearly for drug offenses,
the massive increase in the use of imprisonment for drug offenders in the 1980s had little
discernible impact on drug abuse or drug crimes. As long as a market exists for drugs, new
potential sellers will emerge to take the place of those who are locked up.
WHY ARE AFRICANAMERICAN MALES INCARCERATED AT SUCH HIGH RATES?
We and others have documented the dramatically high rate of incarceration and criminal
justice supervision of AfricanAmerican males. As can be seen in the table below, the
number of incarcerated black males exceeds the number of black males enrolled in higher
education. This is clearly a sign of a longterm crisis in the making for both the black
community and the nation.
AFRICAN-AMERICAN MALE TRENDS IN
INCARCERATION AND HIGHER EDUCATION
Year # Incarcerated Enrolled in Higher Education
1990 499,000 484,000
1992 583,000* 537,000
* Figure represents jail inmates for 1992 and prison inmates for 1993.
In recent years, the plight of AfricanAmerican males has been the subject of much
discussion. A 1990 report of The Sentencing Project documenting that one in four young
black men was under some form of criminal justice control received widespread national
attention. A variety of activities have been undertaken to both study these issues and to
address them programmatically. These have included Congressional hearings, the formation
of task forces, communitybased programs, and others. Despite this level of activity,
though, the number of incarcerated AfricanAmerican males has increased from 499,000 in
1990 to 583,000 by 1992-93.
An analysis of the causes of this distressing situation is complex. An examination of
recent trends, though, points to both social policy factors and criminal justice policies
that relate directly to this problem.
One of the key issues facing the nation today is the problem of youth violence, an area in
which AfricanAmerican males are overrepresented both as victims and perpetrators. Research
in this area by criminologist Delbert Elliott indicates a number of directions in which
social policy plays a significant role in producing differential outcomes by race.
Elliott's review of comparative rates of youth violence finds that rates of violence are
high overall and that they cut across racial and class lines. Youth selfreport studies
show that for 1617 year old males, 2025 percent of the population report having engaged in
"serious violent offending," defined as aggravated assault, forcible rape,
robbery, and homicide. Racial differences are relatively modest by age 18, the rate of
reported violent offending among blacks is only 18 percent higher than for whites.
After the teen years, two trends emerge. First, the vast majority of violent youth cease
their involvement within a few years of its onset. Of those youth who were engaged in
violent behavior as teens, nearly 80 percent report discontinuing such behavior by their
For black youth, though, nearly twice as many persist in their violent offending after age
21. The one significant exception to this pattern, though, is among those males who are
employed. Within this group, there are no discernible differences by race.
Elliott concludes that the key to reducing adolescent violent behavior lies in enabling
these individuals to make a successful transition to the adult roles of work, marriage,
and parenting. He finds that:
...race and class differences in serious violent offending are small during adolescence,
but become substantial during the early adult years. This difference does not appear to be
the result of differences in predispositions to violence, but in the continuity of
violence once initiated. Race, in particular, is related to finding and holding a job, and
to marriage and stable cohabiting rates. In essence, race and poverty are related to
successfully making the transition out of adolescence and into adult roles.
While incarceration may be necessary to respond to certain violent behaviors, its role in
enabling young offenders to make the transition to work and family is virtually
nonexistent. For middle class youth who have access to resources, this transition is far
more likely to take place successfully with or without any intervention by the criminal
Compounding these problems in the larger community and economy are criminal justice
policies of recent years which have further marginalized AfricanAmerican young males. As
we have noted previously, the "war on drugs" in particular has played a
substantial role in exacerbating the continuously increasing rates of incarceration. The
other major outcome of this "war" has been to increase the already substantial
disparity in incarceration suffered by AfricanAmericans.
THE NEW "LAW AND ORDER" CLIMATE
A visitor from another planet might be forgiven for being utterly confused about the
direction of American criminal justice policy. The observer would first note that two
decades of steadily increasing rates of incarceration had not resulted in any Americans
feeling safer from crime. He or she might understandably then believe that a
reconsideration of incarceration policies would be in order.
Looking at activities in Congress and state legislatures, though, it is clear that little
of this is taking place. Congress and at least a dozen states have passed "Three
Strikes and You're Out" laws mandating life without parole for certain threetime
offenders. Despite rising costs of corrections, prison construction continues almost
unabated in most parts of the country. And, public opinion polls show substantially
heightened concern about crime along with support for various restrictive sentencing
How does one explain this seeming inconsistency between reality and public policy? Many
criminal justice observers have noted the fact that fear of crime appears to be increasing
even as crime rates remain about the same as ten years ago. Several factors explain this:
1. Crime rates compared to what? While it is true that crime rates are about the
same as ten years ago, they are significantly higher than thirty years ago. Therefore,
most adults can remember a time in their early life when they felt, and were,
significantly safer than they are today. So, whether crime is up a little or down a little
from year to year, there is an understandably greater concern about its impact on daily
A second issue in this area regards the distinction between crime rates the
proportion of crime for a given population and the actual number of crimes. When
one reads news accounts of cities experiencing record numbers of murders, for
example, it is often the case that the rate of murder is lower than in previous
years. While the murder rate in the U.S. is clearly intolerably high, distortions such as
this only contribute to misperceptions and a heightened climate of fear.
2. Media access and sensationalism. Public policy in the area of crime control has
for a long time been overly influenced by a relative handful of sensational events. The
Willie Horton issue of the 1988 Presidential campaign was one of the most prominent
examples, along with more recent events such as the 1993 tragic murder of 12year old Polly
Klaas in California and the killings on the Long Island RailRoad commuter train. Atypical
as these events may be, they create a distorted perception of the actual risks of violent
Another factor in this area is the broader variety of media outlets that now exist and the
more sensational forms of reporting engaged in by many of them. The police highway
tracking of O.J. Simpson and his subsequent court appearances illustrate ways in which
violent crime comes into the American home in a much more direct way than in the past.
3. Political grandstanding. One of the more significant political developments on
crime policy in recent years is that under the Clinton administration, the Democrats have
tried to "take the crime issue away" from Republicans. Public opinion polls show
this strategy to have been largely successful, with more respondents indicating confidence
in the Democrats to control crime.
In large part, though, this has been little more than promoting the "get tough"
approach that the Republican party has been perceived to offer for many years. The
President's support for "Three Strikes and You're Out" in his State of the Union
message, Congressional support for more prison construction, and the failure to make any
significant inroads on the issue of mandatory sentencing indicate a willingness to pursue
many of the major policy thrusts of the Reagan/Bush era.
The primary distinction made by the Democratic leadership in contrast with the past has
been the call for a "mix of punishment and prevention" approach to crime. Few
persons would argue with the need for such a mix in general terms. The flaw in this
approach, though, is that it presupposes that an "equal" mix of punishment and
prevention is what is called for today. As the history of the past twenty years has
demonstrated, there has been absolutely no reluctance to engage in punishment, even to the
point of becoming a world leader in the use of incarceration. At the same time, due to
budgetary constraints and a changing political climate, resources devoted to prevention in
a broad sense have declined in many respects.
Therefore, if a mix of punishment and prevention is what is actually needed, policymakers
should begin to assess how to achieve that mix. Clearly, an emphasis on
"frontend" preventive approaches and a decreased emphasis on "backend"
reactive approaches should be pursued if the nation is to reach a balance between
punishment and prevention.
4. Intersection of race and crime. One of the defining issues of American criminal
justice policy for many years has been the equation of crime with AfricanAmerican males.
The dynamics of this phenomenon are complex, but they center around the vicious cycle that
has been created in the national consciousness.
For violent offenses in particular, AfricanAmerican male rates of offending are
considerably higher than for other groups. This fact is then portrayed in frequent media
depictions of young black men as criminals, which lends support to policies designed to
incarcerate ever larger numbers of them. Rarely in this process is any attempt made to
understand how a 15year old youth has become a school dropout who is selling drugs and
carrying a gun, or what types of family and community responses might have prevented these
developments. Few middle class families would willfully hand over their teenage children
to the criminal justice system for punishment or rehabilitation, yet AfricanAmerican males
are processed into the system in historic numbers with little questioning by the larger
Lost in the process as well is the fact that for some offenses, AfricanAmericans are
disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system even though their rates of
crime commission are not responsible for the disparities. The sentencing disparities
between powder cocaine and crack cocaine have been well documented, showing that
punishments for these two forms of the same drug are correlated with the race of the user
in large part.
Finally, by looking only at prison populations for sources of disparity, we miss key
aspects of the potential sources of disparity. For example, within the category of violent
offenses, AfricanAmericans arrest rates are approximately the same as the proportion of
AfricanAmericans in prison. If one were to look at white collar or corporate crimes,
though, two issues would emerge. First, we would find that AfricanAmericans are
underrepresented as offenders, and second, that the system has historically put fewer
resources into prosecuting these types of crimes. Thus, decisions regarding criminal
justice priorities play a role in determining the composition of prison populations
regardless of particular crime rates.
The Impact of the New "Law and Order" Movement
It is still too early to project the full impact of the various sentencing policies
that have been adopted or are under consideration at the national and state level. Much of
the impact will depend on how broadly the various proposals are crafted, and how they are
implemented in practice. It is already clear, though, that the new "get tough"
movement has been successful in producing a variety of harsh sentencing proposals, most
notably, the "Three Strikes and You're Out" proposals.
The impact of these proposals will be felt in both fiscal terms and potential disruptions
to components of the criminal justice system. Much of this can be seen most clearly in the
California legislation, which is by far the broadest to date. In addition to providing
life without parole for "threetime losers," the California statutes also
increase sentences for a broad range of offenses. The Department of Corrections has
estimated that the legislation will lead to an increase of 275,000 in the prison
population over the next thirty years, with an additional operating cost of $5.7 billion
annually. Further, the legislation will necessitate an additional $21 billion in prison
The impact of "3 Strikes" laws has already been observed at trials and
sentencing in a number of states:
· One of the first offenders sentenced under the Washington state law was 35year old
Larry Fisher, whose third strike involved robbing a sandwich shop of $151 by pretending
that the finger in his pocket was a gun. His previous two strikes involved pushing his
grandfather down and taking $390 from him, and a $100 pizza parlor robbery that also did
not involve a weapon.
· In the case of the first defendant to be tried in San Francisco under the state's new
law, the 71year old victim whose car had been burglarized refused to testify in court
because she viewed the penalty as far too severe.
· In the first case to be tried in Los Angeles, jurors deadlocked on a routine burglary
charge, reportedly because three jurors believed life in prison was an overly harsh
penalty for a nonviolent crime.
The new generation of harsh sentencing policies will also have several lasting impacts: 1)
prison construction required as a result of their implementation will represent a
commitment to use of these institutions for at least fifty years; 2) funds diverted to
increased costs of corrections will not be available to address a variety of crime
prevention measures; 3) the already tragic levels of incarceration for African-Americans
males will be increased; and, 4) political debate on crime will be further stifled and
more focused on a narrow range of sentencing policies.
The ultimate measure of these proposals, of course, is their impact on crime. In this
area, too, there is no reason to believe that these proposals will be effective. The
demographics of crime commission show us that incarcerating a 50- or 60year old offender
is an extremely expensive means for preventing very few crimes. Rather than providing more
resources to prevention and a more effective juvenile justice system, funding will be
diverted to the creation of geriatric prisons that will hurt taxpayers financially but not
provide them with any increased public safety.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR A MORE RATIONAL CRIME POLICY
The analysis of crime and incarceration described in this report tells us that the
high rate of incarceration in the United States is not solely a product of higher rates of
crime than other nations, nor has it achieved a substantial impact on reducing crime.
Despite a quadrupling of the inmate population since 1973, Americans do not feel safer
from crime and are still victimized by high rates of crime and violence.
We have no illusions that the current tough climate on crime control policies will recede
in the near future. Too many senseless crimes combined with too much media sensationalism
and political grandstanding have created an emotional and politicized atmosphere that
makes rational discussion of crime control policies exceedingly difficult.
Nevertheless, there remain many professionals and others who care about the crime problem
and are genuinely searching for constructive responses. In addition, numerous public
opinion surveys have documented that the public is far more responsive to a broad range of
solutions to crime than is commonly assumed. The problem is that the range of choices
generally presented in public policy discussions is exceedingly narrow.
In previous reports, we have suggested policy changes that could have an impact on rates
of incarceration while providing more appropriate sanctions and services to offenders.
·Repealing mandatory sentencing laws in order to restore appropriate judicial discretion;
·Treating the drug problem primarily as a public health problem rather than as a criminal
·Supporting the expansion of a broader range of alternatives to incarceration to provide
judges and communities with viable community based sentencing options;
·Establishing a national commission to examine the high rate of incarceration in the
U.S., and of African American males in particular.
These and other policy changes would begin to control the spiralling rate of incarceration
and associated costs. Implementing these policies, though, is a political problem, one in
which there has been relatively little constructive leadership. It is far from certain
that the political climate on crime can be altered significantly in the short run. If it
is to change in the long run, though, a framework such as the following needs to be
1. No "anticrime" proposals enacted today whether prison construction or
prevention programs will have much impact on crime in the next several years. It is far
more important to look toward the generation of youth being born today and to develop
policies that will reduce their chances of becoming offenders as they reach their teen
2. The criminal justice system, as a reactive system, can only have a limited impact on
crime. While a system of justice and sanctions is necessary, we should not look to the
courts and prisons as the primary means of controlling or preventing crime.
3. Crime is a product of many factors, including individual, family, and community issues.
Only an understanding of the complexity of these factors will enable us to develop a
comprehensive strategy for responding to the problem.
For too long, public debate on crime has been polarized and stifling. As a result, we are
faced with the problems of continuing high rates of crime, increasing rates of
incarceration, and continuing public dissatisfaction. After twenty years of "getting
tough," it is hard to imagine how new "tough" proposals will succeed any
better than their predecessors. It is time to publicly acknowledge this crisis and to
initiate a more honest and open debate about the pressing problem of crime.
METHODOLOGY FOR PRISONER DATA
United States Data are for the years 199293 (the most recent available), and
were derived from Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reports detailing the number of
prison inmates on December 31, 1993 and the number of jail inmates on June 30, 1992. From
the total inmate figure, we excluded 2,804 juveniles being held in local jails as well as
50,966 inmates under federal or state jurisdiction who were being held in local jails, so
as to avoid duplication with the jail count.
To calculate the racial composition of the state and federal inmate population, we used
the figures of 47.9 percent black and 46.8 percent white from Correctional Populations
in the United States, 1991 (BJS). The racial composition of jail inmates was derived
in two steps. We first used the figures of 44.1 percent black and 40.1 percent white
nonHispanic from the 1992 jail report. We then estimated the portion of the Hispanic
population (14.5 percent of jail inmates) by race, using Census Bureau estimates that the
Hispanic population nationally is 95 percent white, 2 percent black, and 2 percent other.
Male inmate populations were calculated by race by using the 1991 proportions for state
and federal inmates and the 1992 overall data for jails. All racial data represent a small
undercount, since data on race are not available for approximately 4 percent of state and
federal inmates. Overall population data were taken from Census Bureau estimates for 1993.
A small margin of error is inevitable in these calculations. It is possible, for example,
that the racial composition of the Hispanic inmate population is different than for the
population as a whole. There is no reason to believe, though, that the overall inmate
population estimates are off by a substantial margin.
Other Nations Sources for prisoner data include Human Rights Watch, Penal Reform
International, Australian Institute of Criminology, Corrections Compendium, and
Professor Nils Christie. Data for Asian counties are all for 1993; for Europe and other
continents, data are for either 1992 or 1993.
Data for Russia are taken from three sources. The most current is from a report of a
lecture given by the General Director of the Russian Prison System, as described by Nils
Christie of the University of Oslo in the 1994 edition of Crime Control as Industry,
documenting a total of 848,000 inmates. An April 1993 article by Gary Hill appearing in Corrections
Compendium cites almost identical figures (845,000), and the State Department's County
Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1993 lists the prison population as 827,000. We
have used Christie's figure as the most current, and from it have deducted the 19,000
juveniles reported by Hill, so as to be comparable to the U.S. calculations.
The South African figures are taken from the 1993 report of the South African Prisons
Service. The South African categories of "black" and "colored" are
combined to produce the black male rate of incarceration. In previous reports, we have
attempted to estimate the incarceration rate for the four "independent"
homelands that were not recognized by any nation outside South Africa. This estimate was
then incorporated into the overall figures for South Africa to derive a rate of
incarceration. Since there are no current reliable figures for these homelands for 1993,
we have not included them in either the prison data or the overall population data for
South Africa. Therefore, the incarceration rates reported here are not entirely comparable
to those of past reports. Since the homelands are now officially part of South Africa, we
hope that in future reports data will be available for the entire population.
Although previous reports included data for China, there are no current data that are
considered reliable by most observers.