What's behind America's high incarceration rate?

Here are five facts to better understand the issue.

By Drew Kann

Published July 4, 2018


The United States has the world's highest incarceration rate.

Source: World Prison Brief

Year after year, the US locks up more people per capita than any other country or territory.

1) US

  • 2) El Salvador

  • 3) Turkmenistan

  • 4) US Virgin Islands

  • 5) Maldives

Data Source: World Prison Brief

More people are locked up in the US than there are living in many major cities.

Source: US Census Bureau, Bureau of Justice Statistics


Most inmates are held in state prisons and local jails -- not federal prisons.

Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images.

1.3 million

Total state prison population


Total local jail population


Total federal prison population

Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images. Data Source: Prison Policy Initiative


In many cities and states, money decides who stays in jail and who gets out.

Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Many who are arrested but can't afford bail are forced to wait until the court takes action, or work with a bail bond agent to secure their freedom.

~$2 billion

Estimated annual bail industry profits

Photo: AFP/Getty Images. Source: Color of Change/ACLU's Campaign for Smart Justice


The 'war on drugs' isn't solely to blame for mass incarceration.

Photo: Drug Enforcement Administration

In federal prisons, nearly half of all inmates are locked up for drug charges.

But in state prisons and local jails where most prisoners are housed, drug offenders are a much smaller segment of the population.

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images. Source: Prison Policy Initiative


Minorities are still overrepresented in the prison population, but racial and ethnic gaps are shrinking.

Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Compared to whites, African-Americans make up a small percentage of the overall US population.


Percentage of American adults who are white


Percentage of American adults who are African-American

Photo: Jeff Haynes/AFP/Getty Images. Source: Pew Research

But behind bars, African-Americans represent a disproportionate amount of prisoners.


Percentage of federal and state prisoners who are African-American


Percentage of federal and state prisoners who are white

Photo: Jeff Haynes/AFP/Getty Images. Source: Pew Research

However, the disparity between the number of African-Americans and whites locked up is shrinking.

Between 2009 and 2016, the African-American prison population ↓ 17%, while the number of whites behind bars dropped just 10%.

Photo: Saul Loeb/Getty Images. Source: Pew Research