Prisons are big in the United States. There are more people behind bars literally, and proportionally, than any time in our history. We have a higher percentage of our population in prison than any other nation. And, we keep building more prisons, in fact many locales lobby for new prisons as a tool of economic recovery. What are the actual numbers that put American prison populations in historical and international perspective? 

Between 1973 and 2000 the rate of incarceration in the United States more than quadrupled. The International Centre for Prison Studies at Kings College, London now calculates the U.S. rate at 700 people per 100,000. There are now more than two million Americans behind bars. Add to that another four and a half million on probation or parole and three million ex-convicts. This trend shows no sign of slowing.

Although blacks account for only 12 percent of the U.S. population, 44 percent of all prisoners in the United States are black. This is NOT because 12% of the population (blacks) are responsible for 44% of crime.

The proportion of blacks in prison populations exceeds the proportion among state residents in every single state. In twenty states, the percent of blacks incarcerated is at least five times greater than their share of resident population.

The national war on drugs has perhaps been the primary factor behind the extraordinary rates at which blacks are incarcerated.

Drug offenses account for nearly two out of five of the blacks sent to state prison. More blacks are sent to state prison for drug offenses (38 percent) than for crimes of violence In contrast, drug offenders constitute 24 percent of whites admitted to prison and violent offenders constitute 27 percent

African-Americans are arrested, prosecuted, and imprisoned for drug offenses at far higher rates than whites. This racial disparity bears little relationship to racial differences in drug offending. For example, although the proportion of all drug users who are black is generally in the range of 13 to 15 percent, blacks constitute 36 percent of arrests for drug possession. Blacks constitute 63 percent of all drug offenders admitted to state prisons. In at least fifteen states, black men were sent to prison on drug charges at rates ranging from twenty to fifty-seven times those of white men.

In 2001, nearly 6.6 million people were on probation, in jail or prison, or on parole at year end. That number represents 3.1% of all U.S. adult residents or one in every 32 adults. 

Don Woldman and I will discuss this situation, among other things, this Saturday 2pm PDT on our Internet radio show. Please listen. 

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