Mass Incarceration in the United States

Story by: Noah Weinberg and Sean Kook

Date: 1/13/21

The United States is the leading country in the number of incarcerated individuals, with 2.3 million people, or 698 for every 100,000 people, in prison. This translates to 1 in every 37 United States adults.

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The next highest country is China, a country with an authoritarian government ruled by one ultimate leader, that tracks a person’s every transaction, whereabouts, and digital interaction. In addition, their population stands at about four times that of the United States, which begs the obvious question: How does the United States then have a mile’s lead in the number of incarceration compared to China? The answer is not that Americans are somehow more susceptible to committing crimes. Rather, it is racially complicated as it lies deep in America’s cultural history that traces back to the policing of slavery in the early 1700s. Created in the Carolinas, a region that was most actively involved in slave trades, “Slave Patrol” was the time’s formal policing group whose mission was to capture fugitive slaves or to otherwise keep them from creating an uprising. Slave Patrol disappeared following the Civil War and the passage of the 13th amendment – which abolished the whole slavery institution – but its role in society was maintained by evolved militia-styled policing groups in the Reconstruction era. With the desire to retrieve the conservative aspects of the antebellum South, these militia groups worked to deny black freedmen their constitutional right to equal protection by enforcing Black Codes and Jim Crow laws. By the 1900s, municipalities created local police departments to enforce laws that had been carried over from the past unrevised, including the Jim Crow laws (enforced until the 1960s). Remnants of the history of targeting African Americans have continued over to the War on Drugs era as well as the present mass incarceration era.

It is small wonder, therefore, that the United States has a mass incarceration problem, one that is obsolete in many other first world countries such as China.

As Michelle Alexander puts it in her book The New Jim Crow:

“The genius of the current caste system, and what most distinguishes it from its predecessors, is that it appears voluntary. People choose to commit crimes, and that's why they are locked up or locked out, we are told. This feature makes the politics of responsibility particularly tempting, as it appears the system can be avoided with good behavior. But herein lies the trap. All people make mistakes. All of us are sinners. All of us are criminals. All of us violate the law at some point in our lives. In fact, if the worst thing you have ever done is speed ten miles over the speed limit on the freeway, you have put yourself and others at more risk of harm than someone smoking marijuana in the privacy of his or her living room. Yet there are people in the United States serving life sentences for first-time drug offenses, something virtually unheard of anywhere else in the world.”

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Although it comes down from a long line of roots, the modern mass incarceration crisis began in the middle of Nixon’s presidency, directly following his creation of the War on Drugs campaign. He created the Drug Enforcement Administration, an organization built not only to crack-down on drug abuse but also, and more importantly, to legally affiliate drugs with their users – mostly African Americans, Mexicans, and Hispanics who were a part of social upheavals and political dissent against the ideals of Nixonian Republicanism – in order to criminalize them altogether. Similar efforts were seen in the 1870s when the United States enacted anti-opium laws directed at Chinese immigrants. The Reagan administration continued the drug war, contributing to the skyrocketing incarceration rates from drug law offenses which increased from 50,000 in 1980 to 400,000 in 1997. Economically, the DEA’s funding started at $75 million in 1973; however, last year in 2019, the funding amounted to over $2 billion. From the graph below, it is evident that the DEA campaign is extremely costly. Though the War on Drugs has been seen as a failure from the public’s eye for decades, it nevertheless remains to be a very important issue in domestic policy as it is daily consequential to many Americans. According to the Center for American Progress, one-fifth of the prison population is serving a drug-related charge.

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Although Nixon began the strict ban and criminalization of drugs, many other Presidents had policies that impacted the number of incarcerated individuals. The graph below shows the number of incarcerated individuals during the presidencies of Nixon, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, five presidents who had a significant impact on the number of incarcerated Americans.

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Click on a president below to view their policies that affected the number of imprisoned Americans.

Although Nixon did launch a federal ban and criminalization of drugs, many other presidents following his tenure enacted policies that contributed to the rise in the number of incarcerated individuals. The graph below shows the number of incarcerated individuals during the presidencies of Nixon, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, five notable presidents responsible for expanding the mass incarceration problem. Detailed information about each of the five president’s specific contributions to the incarceration problem can be found below the graph.


US Incarceration Map: Correctional Populations In The United States

Imprisonment By Country Graph: World Prison Populations

DEA Budget Graph: World Prison Populations

Incarcerated Americans Overtime Graph: The Soviet Union: Military Spending

Sources for Story:

Criminal Justice Fact Sheet
The New Jim Crow
A Brief History of The Drug War
Looking Back: President Obama's Historic Efforts to Roll Back the Drug War and Tackle Mass Incarceration
History of the War on Drugs Reagan Beyound
George H. W. Bush Remembered for Ramping Up the War on Drugs
Bill Clinton and the 1994 Crime Bill