U.S. has most prisoners in world


Richard Moore

Original source URL:


U.S. has most prisoners in world due to tough laws
Sat Dec 9, 2006 11:15 AM ET

By James Vicini

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Tough sentencing laws, record numbers of drug offenders 
and high crime rates have contributed to the United States having the largest 
prison population and the highest rate of incarceration in the world, according 
to criminal justice experts.

A U.S. Justice Department report released on November 30 showed that a record 7 
million people -- or one in every 32 American adults -- were behind bars, on 
probation or on parole at the end of last year. Of the total, 2.2 million were 
in prison or jail.

According to the International Center for Prison Studies at King's College in 
London, more people are behind bars in the United States than in any other 
country. China ranks second with 1.5 million prisoners, followed by Russia with 

The U.S. incarceration rate of 737 per 100,000 people in the highest, followed 
by 611 in Russia and 547 for St. Kitts and Nevis. In contrast, the incarceration
rates in many Western industrial nations range around 100 per 100,000 people.

Groups advocating reform of U.S. sentencing laws seized on the latest U.S. 
prison population figures showing admissions of inmates have been rising even 
faster than the numbers of prisoners who have been released.

"The United States has 5 percent of the world's population and 25 percent of the
world's incarcerated population. We rank first in the world in locking up our 
fellow citizens," said Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance, which 
supports alternatives in the war on drugs.

"We now imprison more people for drug law violations than all of western Europe,
with a much larger population, incarcerates for all offenses."

Ryan King, a policy analyst at The Sentencing Project, a group advocating 
sentencing reform, said the United States has a more punitive criminal justice 
system than other countries.


"We send more people to prison, for more different offenses, for longer periods 
of time than anybody else," he said.

Drug offenders account for about 2 million of the 7 million in prison, on 
probation or parole, King said, adding that other countries often stress 
treatment instead of incarceration.

Commenting on what the prison figures show about U.S. society, King said various
social programs, including those dealing with education, poverty, urban 
development, health care and child care, have failed.

"There are a number of social programs we have failed to deliver. There are 
systemic failures going on," he said. "A lot of these people then end up in the 
criminal justice system."

Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in 
California, said the high prison numbers represented a proper response to the 
crime problem in the United States. Locking up more criminals has contributed to
lower crime rates, he said.

"The hand-wringing over the incarceration rate is missing the mark," he said.

Scheidegger said the high prison population reflected cultural differences, with
the United States having far higher crimes rates than European nations or Japan.
"We have more crime. More crime gets you more prisoners."

Julie Stewart, president of the group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, cited
the Justice Department report and said drug offenders are clogging the U.S. 
justice system.

"Why are so many people in prison? Blame mandatory sentencing laws and the 
record number of nonviolent drug offenders subject to them," she said.

© Reuters 2006. All rights reserved.

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