America Incarcerated

Crime, Punishment, and the Question of Race

| Utne Reader November / December 2007

The early 1990s were the age of drive-by shootings, drug deals gone bad, crack cocaine, and gangsta rap. Between 1960 and 1990, the annual number of murders in New Haven, Connecticut, rose from 6 to 31, the number of rapes from 4 to 168, the number of robberies from 16 to 1,784—all this while the city’s population declined by 14 percent. Crime was concentrated in central cities: In 1990 two-fifths of Pennsylvania’s violent crimes were committed in Philadelphia, home to one-seventh of the state’s population. The subject of crime dominated American domestic-policy debates.

Most observers at the time expected things to get worse. Consulting demographic tables and extrapolating trends, scholars and pundits warned the public to prepare for an onslaught, and for a new kind of criminal—the anomic, vicious, irreligious, amoral juvenile “superpredator.” In 1995 one academic commentator predicted a “bloodbath” of juvenile violence in 2005.

And so we prepared. Stoked by fear and political opportunism, but also by the need to address a very real social problem, we threw lots of people in jail, and when the old prisons were filled we built new ones.

But the onslaught never came. Crime rates peaked in 1992 and have dropped sharply since. Even as crime rates fell, however, imprisonment rates continued their upward march. The result, the current American prison system, is a leviathan unmatched in human history.



According to a 2005 report of the International Centre for Prison Studies in London, the United States—with 5 percent of the world’s population—houses 25 percent of the world’s inmates. Our incarceration rate (714 per 100,000 residents) is almost 40 percent greater than those of our nearest competitors (Bermuda, Belarus, and Russia). Other industrial democracies, even those with significant crime problems of their own, are much less punitive: Our incarceration rate is 6.2 times that of Canada, 7.8 times that of France, and 12.3 times that of Japan. We have a corrections sector that employs more Americans than the combined workforces of General Motors, Ford, and Wal-Mart, the three largest corporate employers in the country, and we are spending some $200 billion annually on law enforcement and corrections at all levels of government, a fourfold increase (in constant dollars) over the past quarter century.

Never before has a supposedly free country denied basic liberty to so many of its citizens. In June 2006 some 2.25 million people were being held in the nearly 5,000 prisons and jails that are scattered across America’s urban and rural landscapes. One-third of inmates in state prisons are violent criminals, convicted of homicide, rape, or robbery. The other two-thirds consist mainly of property and drug offenders. Inmates are disproportionately drawn from the most disadvantaged parts of society. On average, state inmates have fewer than 11 years of schooling. They are also vastly disproportionately black and brown.