Prison Population Growth

The growth in prison population in the United States during the past eighty-five years has been startling. From the 1920s until the mid-1970s, prison populations remained remarkably stable. But beginning in the mid-1970s, there was a veritable explosion in defendants being sent to prison. The figures speak for themselves. In the first period, incarceration rates hovered around one hundred per one hundred thousand. By 2002, the incarceration rate was 476 per 100,000. Whereas in the l920s the U.S. rate was comparable to those of many other Western nations, today we have become the ‘‘leader’’ (by a big margin) in incarceration.

There are many hypotheses proffered to explain the dramatic increase. First, the ‘‘politicization’’ of crime in the 1970s led to a clamor for tougher sentences. This in turn led to a proliferation of mandatory sentencing and ‘‘three strikes’’ laws, which required a fixed period of incarceration for particular offenses and very long sentences for defendants with multiple convictions (often even if for minor felonies). Second (and relatedly), the sentencing reform movement that gathered steam late in the l970s often resulted in fixed (and lengthier) sentences for many offenders, coupled with substantial increases in the time a defendant would serve before becoming eligible for parole. Third, the explosion in drug use and/or dramatically increased enforcement of drug laws—and sentencing guidelines that mandated imprisonment for drug offenders—flooded the state and federal prisons with inmates.

Incarceration rates increased from the 1970s on, even during periods in which crime levels remained constant. Typically, states were spending increasing amounts for prisons while simultaneously cutting expenditures in other areas (including higher education). Some states now are ‘‘rediscovering’’ the possibility that rehabilitation can be a legitimate goal of criminal justice. There seems to be a renewed interest in limiting the actual costs incurred by incarcerating so many; this has taken the form of revisiting the wisdom of some mandatory sentences for some offenders, of developing new ‘‘alternatives’’ to prison, and of reconsidering the wisdom of all drug criminalization programs.


References and Further Reading

  • Blumstein, Alfred. ‘‘Prisons: A Policy Challenge.’’ In Crime, James Q. Wilson and Joan Persilia, eds. Oakland, CA: ICS Press, 2002, pp. 451–482.
  • Bureau of Justice Statistics, ‘‘Prison and Jail Inmates at Midyear 2004.’’ Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice—Office of Justice Programs, April 2005.
  • Bureau of Justice Statistics. Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics—2002. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice—Office of Justice Programs, 2004.
  • The Sentencing Project, ‘‘Ten Leading Nations in Incarceration Rates’’ and ‘‘Rate of Incarceration in Selected Nations,’’ Washington, D.C.: The Sentencing Project, 2005. Available:
  • Tonry, Michael. Sentencing Matters. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  • ———. Thinking About Crime. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

See also Harmelin v Michigan, 501 U.S. 957 (1991); Mandatory Minimum Sentences; Race and Criminal Justice


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