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America Is the Largest Jailer in the World: Land of the Free?

Michael Coghlan

Mark Gordon - published on 07/31/14 - updated on 06/08/17

Our nation's priorities ought to be a concern to all Christians, especially Catholics.

Along with poverty, the collapse of the family, health care, education and other issues affecting social justice, our broken criminal justice system ranks among the most important.

Simply put, the United States is the largest jailer in the world by any statistical measure. What that says about our nation and its priorities ought to be a concern to all Christians, especially Catholics.

At only five percent of the world’s population, the United States accounts for 25% of the world’s prisoners, with 2.2 million citizens incarcerated in federal and state prisons. That’s half a million more than our nearest competitor, China, which has a population four times as large as ours. And the rate of imprisonment in the United States is similarly prodigious: 707 prisoners per 100,000 of population, which far outstrips any other country with a population of at least a million. Our nearest competitors are Cuba (510), Rwanda (492) and Russia (470). China’s rate per 100,000 of population is 172.

According to the US Department of Justice, in 2012 nearly 7 million adults were under the supervision of the criminal justice system, either in jail or on probation or parole. That’s one of every 35 adults.  The racial distribution of these statistics is equally troubling. African-Americans, who constitute 12% of our population, are incarcerated at six times the rate of white Americans. Of the 2.2 million Americans in prison, one million are black. One in three black men can expect to be incarcerated at some point during his lifetime.

The cruel irony in these statistics is that the crime rate in the United States has been tumbling for three decades. Violent crime, property crime, murder, rape, robbery, larceny, assault, burglary, and motor vehicle thefts are all far below their 1980 rates, often halved. And yet the prison population in America has quadrupled, from half a million in 1980 to 2.2 million today, and the number of federal prisoners has grown by 790%.

What accounts for this explosion? The so-called “War on Drugs,” inaugurated under President Ronald Reagan and continued unabated by every president since.  

Incarceration for drug offenses has grown by 1200% since 1980. American prisons now house over half a million nonviolent offenders arrested and convicted for drug crimes. And yet, the number of drug abusers in the United States, while higher than in 1980, hasn’t grown nearly as steeply. Marijuana is still the leading drug of choice, followed by prescription drugs, but the rate of use among Americans has remained steady for well over a decade. What has changed is the degree and type of enforcement, including sentencing, but that enforcement has been applied unequally and, many say, unjustly.

For instance, the “War on Drugs” is often blamed for the disproportionate number of blacks in prison. And yet, drug use is hardly an exclusively African-American problem. Five times more whites admit to using illegal drugs, yet blacks are ten times more likely to be imprisoned on drug charges. And when they are, sentences are longer. In fact, blacks spend nearly as long in prison on drug charges—58 months, on averageas whites spend for violent offenses.

What are the effects of these figures on people already struggling with poverty? According to Veronique de Rugy in an article at National Review, “the real tragedy is that so many children’s lives are destroyed along with those of their incarcerated parents. Over 50 percent of inmates are parents with minor children, including more than 120,000 mothers and 1.1 million fathers. One in every 28 children has a parent incarcerated, up from 1 in 125 just 25 years ago. Two-thirds of these children’s parents were incarcerated for nonviolent offenses.”

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