The Common Good
December 2012

Incarceration Nation

by Dawn Cherie Araujo | December 2012

Putting Americans behind bars is becoming an increasingly lucrative business.

THE UNITED STATES has the highest incarceration rate in the world.  In fact, according to the most recent data, the U.S., while having only 4.5 percent of the world’s population, holds 21 percent of the world’s prisoners. The last few years have shown a slight decrease in incarceration rates, but law enforcement policies continue to both target racial minorities and to foster high recidivism rates.  And with the rise of private, for-profit prisons, putting Americans behind bars is becoming an increasingly lucrative business.

  • 2.3 million people are in prison or jail in the U.S.—and one in every 33 adults is behind bars or on parole (2010 figures).
  • From 2002 to 2010, the number of inmates held in for-profit prisons increased 37 percent, while the number detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in for-profit prisons increased 206 percent.
  • In 2011, 70 percent of people sentenced in federal criminal cases were people of color. More than 34 percent of prosecuted criminal cases were immigration-related, and 29 percent were drug-related. Fraud, the third most common offense, made up less than 10 percent of federal criminal cases.
  • Approximately 700,000 ex-offenders are released from prison each year, and more than 40 percent of them are reincarcerated within three years of their release.
  • The national unemployment rate is 7.8 percent, but even before the recession, unemployment was roughly 75 percent for ex-offenders in the year after release.

                                                                                                                                                         —Compiled by Dawn Araujo

Sources: U.S. Census; International Centre for Prison Studies; Bureau of Justice Statistics; Pew Center on the States; The Sentencing Project; U.S. Sentencing Commission; U.S. Department of Labor; Marked, by Devah Pager.

Image: Prison, Galyna Andrushko /

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