The United States imprisoned people at a fairly steady pace until about 1980. Then, as if a switch was flipped, our country more than tripled its imprisonment rate, leaving us out of step not just with other countries but with our own traditions.

We used to imprison 1 in 500 residents. Today, we imprison 1 in 140.

Back then, high crime rates led to political support for increased imprisonment, but there was no discussion of creating the outcome that actually occurred — doubling, tripling, even quadrupling our level of imprisonment. In fact, the historical record provides no evidence that anyone thought this was even a possibility.

The nation’s imprisonment error is as if a truck driver inadvertently applied too much pressure and for too long on the accelerator, unintentionally pushing the truck’s speed beyond the intended goal of 70 m.p.h. to a reckless, dangerous speed of 100 m.p.h.. Like a truck reaching its mechanical limit, the U.S. imprisonment rate has flattened since the recession of 2007-09 forced states to release some prisoners for reasons of finance and fairness.

That is no victory. Imprisonment is still bizarrely high — 99 m.p.h. high — and it’s time now for everyone to step back and ask: What the hell just happened? Only then can we consider: What should we do next?

Benchmarking vs. ourselves

The 1980 imprisonment rate is a modest goal, a minimum standard to judge ourselves against.

The 1980 rate — imprisoning 1 of every 500 residents — would still keep the country at  the top of our nation’s historical range and higher every other major industrialized nation. This high rate would preserve plenty of prison beds needed to keep violent people off our streets. It would not be enough to support drug prohibition, at least as its been transformed over the last 30 years.

The 1980 imprisonment rate would encourage government to focus law enforcement where it belongs, keeping streets safe and freeing resources to fight digital age fraud. The conservative critique of today’s crime policy is correct: mass imprisonment fails to prioritize. It has a poor sense of what should be illegal, who should be in prison and how sentence length should work.

Benchmarking is crucial to understanding how far we strayed from traditional American values and how to get back where we belong.

The United States would need to free 1,606,535 prisoners — leaving 621,845 behind bars — to return to 1980. The United States would need to release 779,933 — leaving 1,448,467 behind bars — to return to 1990. The United States would need to release 67,604 — leaving 2,160,796 behind bars — to return to 2000.

These numbers illustrate how modest current sentencing reform proposals are.  President Obama’s expedited clemency effort might free a few thousand, barely rounding error in an imprisonment aberration of epic proportion.

The claim that our country has 1 million prisoners too many  is not excited rhetoric. It’s an undercount.

 Benchmarking vs. other countries

How do we compare to the rest of the world? Consider how many prisoners we would have to release immediately to conform to the legal and social norms of other free (and not so free) countries.  The answer is startling. From the 2,228,400 held behind bars today, the United States would have to free…

  • 641,343 prisoners to be Cuba.
  • 765,623 to be Russia.
  • 1,344,509 to be Iran.
  • 1,574,819 to be Poland.
  • 1,693,086 to be China.
  • 1,767,281 to be England.
  • 1,780,230 to be Spain.
  • 1,861,150 to be Canada.
  • 1,957,631 to be Switzerland.
  • 1,985,641 to be Germany.
  • 2,069,273 to be Japan.

Think about these numbers next time you sing “land of the free” at the start of a baseball game.

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Dennis Cauchon, editor of The Clemency Report, wrote this article. He is a former reporter and editor at USA TODAY, The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., The Sun Herald in Biloxi, Miss., and Foster’s Daily Democrat in Dover, N.H. Cauchon did a journalism fellowship studying “The History of False Ideas” at the University of Michigan in 1996-97. He lives in Ohio and is the father of two teenage boys. He can be reached at This article uses data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, the Census Bureau, the International Centre for Prison Studies and the Justice Policy Institute.

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