The prison population in the United States keeps on growing. A good thing, say those who note crime keeps coming down at the same time. Others wonder if the costs of locking up 2 million prisoners are too much – and if, perhaps there are better ways to “correct” criminals so fewer return to jail once they've been released.

Number of criminals:

  • In prison: 1.4 million (2005) DOJ (pdf)

  • In jail: 0.7 million (2005) DOJ (pdf)

  • On parole: 0.8 million (2005) DOJ (pdf)

  • On probation: 4.2 million (2005) DOJ (pdf)

over time

sources: DOJ (pdf) Albany (pdf) Census (pdf)

sources: DOJ (pdf) Albany (pdf)

State vs. Federal

Number of prisoners DOJ

  • In state prisons and local jails: 2 million
  • In federal prisons: 169 thousand

Compared to the rest of the world

  • With 715 prisoners per 100,000 Americans, the US has the highest imprisonment rate in the world NationMaster
  • 2nd place: Russia, with 584 prisoners per 100,000
  • Western European nation with highest rate: Spain with 144 per 100,000
  • Honorable mention: Japan has 54 prisoners per 100,000


  • Total: $61 billion (2003) DOJ
  • Per prisoner: $25,327 (2003 - in federal prison) DOJ

What prisoners are in for: DOJ

In state prisons:

  • Violent offenses: 49%
  • Drug offences: 20%
  • Property offences: 19%
  • Public order offences: 11%

In federal prisons:

  • Drug offenses: 55%
  • Public order offenses: 26%, of that:
    • 11% immigration
    • 9% guns
  • Violent offences: 11%
  • Property offences: 7%


Recidivists are criminals who come back to prison for at least one more round after they've been released. Recidivism rates in the United States are higher than one would expect, prompting criticism that US Correctional Institutions are failing to accomplish their main goal – correction.

How many are released ever year from: CSG

  • Jails: 7 million
  • Prisons: 650 thousand

Recidivism Rates DOJ '94

Within three years of release from prison, how many

  • Are rearrested: 67.5%
  • Return to prison with a new sentence: 25.4%

Where the facts are from:

  • DOJ - Department of Justice
  • CSG - Council of State Governments
  • Albany - Sourcebook at University of Albany

Other recommended readings:

  • a report on federal prison populations and length of sentences from the US Sentencing Commission.
  • a report from the Council on State Governments on re-entry into the prison and jail system - with bipartisan policy recommendations on how to help ex-cons readjust to nonprison life.
  • a Washington Post op-ed arguing the only thing that will stop recidivism is better law enforcement.

Summer 2005

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...I feel that if you take an innocent life in a robbery, rape, home should die.......immediately........


If, once youve had your trial and the evidence is overwhelming, that shows the guilt of the perpetrator.....they should die........period....


And they shouldnt be able to stay in a prison cell for 15 years before they get their judgement......


There should be a rope......tied around the neck of the excrement of society.......

 and hang [them] over the street for 3 days just to show the rest of society "THIS is what will happen to you if you violate a citizen of America".


The reason why we have all these crimes against innocent individuals is because the system is too weak on the criminals that commit these acts........


Im not talking about the ones that smoke a joint in their livingroom....Im not talking about the ones that drink and drive........Im not talking about the ones that sell dope....Im talking about the rapers, molesters, robbers........anything that is deemed violent against another individual.......


Bring back the rope......

a random Joe (not verified) | January 26, 2009 - 7:45am

A simple Plan

This thought really came to me after Martha Stewart spent several months in minimum security facility in West Virginia for her “Federal Offenses” Now, I don’t want to in any way say that this is all about Martha, rather the fact that here is an individual of substantial wealth, who was found guilty by a federal court and sentenced by the same court. The part that I didn’t see at all is where the federal court made Martha pay for all the court costs as well as her vacation in West Virginia. All of which wouldn’t put a dent in her net worth, but would have reduced dramatically the expenses that continue to be covered by us taxpayers.

What I propose is at first blush very simple. Generally that means it isn’t. Start by creating a new branch of the IRS, call it “Criminal Tax Department” Hey, wow, we just created more federal jobs…….. Now for the judicial side, and this would need to be defined in detail. We create a “White Collar” crime. In other words, there are a lot of very intelligent and very wealthy people that commit crimes, such as embezzlement, computer hacking, insider trading, fraud, etc….. When found guilty, they are also obligated to reimburse the state and or Fed for the amount that they use, room board, food, entertainment, and free medical, all now are subsidized by the offender rather than the tax payers, couple this with an additional “Criminal Tax” above and beyond the normal federal/state taxes, that would be managed by the IRS’s new “Criminal Tax” division. Each individual who fit into the level of crime that would be defined, would be allowed to maintain their life, continue to work and thrive, just pay this additional tax every year for “X” amount of years. I wonder what something like this would do to reducing the already overloaded prison systems freeing up dollars and facilities to accommodate the really bad guys, who don’t make any money anyway. Now, in no way do I claim the constitutionality of a proposal of such, rather just throwing out an idea for someone else to research and either kill it or make it happen.

Greg Pelkey (not verified) | January 29, 2008 - 8:30am

Your comments are

Your comments are confusing.  Are you saying that death penalty should be allowed or not?

What do you make of the fact that there are many more black prisoners on death row than other races?  Is the system unfair, or are a disproportinate number of black people committing terrible crimes?  Why?

I believe this is not a simple issue. Life is sacred, and the state does not have the right to kill.


dujardin | January 10, 2008 - 9:34pm


- Facts Thirty-four states in America allow death penalty. Since being allowed 1,097 people have been killed due to death row sentence. Also 67% of capital convictions are eventually overturned. 98.6% of death row inmates are males 51.7% of these males don’t even own high school diplomas. 42.9% of people on death row are African American. 12.8% African American live in United States. Since 1973 103 people have been released from death row after being proved innocent. I believe the death penalty should be allowed and so does my partner Fallon. We believe there’s to much of a risk or chance that someone might actually be innocent. Someone who disagrees with us might say it’s right because someone who take a life should not be given a life. 


Tanajhiad | January 8, 2008 - 12:31pm