Download historical incarceration data
The aberration of today’s criminal justice policies is visually startling.
Our invisible neighbors
In 2014, the U.S. locked up 1 of every 135 residents and one of every 106 adults. These numbers are down slightly from the peak in 2007 but show that the era of mass imprisonment in the United States continues and that highly publicized criminal justice reforms had had negligible effect.
Drug prohibition is the fuel of mass imprisonment. The government’s official drug use survey found nearly 50 million people used drugs illegally in 2014, including 58% of those ages 18-25, the target population for imprisonment. Adjustments in procedures and sentence lengths cannot offset the ability of law enforcement to harvest an effectively unlimited supply of inmates that results from criminalizing an ordinary behavior.
The truth is, recreational drug use is not deviant. It is normal. The number of people who use illegal drugs is almost exactly the same number of 50 million sexual couplings that occur each year, according to a Centers for Disease Control National Health Report. (50 million men + 50 million women = 50 million sexual couplers since it takes two to tango.)
The U.S. has nine million gay residents, according to the most recent estimate. Imagine if the nation’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies employing 1.1 million were dedicated — indeed, required — to arrest every gay person (and gay bar owner) or unmarried heterosexual fornicator that police can find through investigation, informants or stumbling across in a city parked or parked car.
“Reforming” drug laws is no more possible than reforming laws against sex or using psychological treatment to “cure” homosexuality. All behavior has risk, from taking drugs to having sex to playing football to driving a car. Prohibition of an ordinary activity cannot work, but it can create enormous societal and economic distortions, cause extraordinary amounts of injustice and provide a dressed-up reason to arrest and imprison millions of unpopular people, not surprisingly racial minorities and the poor generally.
The nearly 50 million illicit drug users per year are, of course, only a fraction of the nation’s recreational drug users. About 150 million Americans consumed the stimulant coffee every day in 2013 and more than 200 million per year. Consumers of this legal stimulant skew affluent and white. Fewer than 10 people a year die from caffeine overdoses, mostly from caffeine pills, power and perhaps energy drinks. When diluted in water for coffee, caffeine overdoses are nearly impossible. However, heavy coffee drinking — 4 or more cups per day — was correlated with increased mortality, according to a large Mayo Clinic study.
Alcohol is the nation’s second most popular recreational drug, consumed by 140 million per month and 194 million sometime during in 2014. Every month, 61 million Americans “binge” on alcohol — defined as 5 or more drinks at once — and 16 million binge five times a month. Four of every five substance abuse problems in the United States involve alcohol, according to the government’s 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
Whites use alcohol at higher rates than all other racial and ethnic groups, including blacks and American Indians. In 2013, the past month use of alcohol varied this way:
- Past month use. 57.7% of whites vs. 43.6% of blacks.
- Binge alcohol use. 24.0% whites vs. 20.1% blacks.
- Heavy alcohol use. 7.3% of whites vs. 4.5% of blacks. (Binging 5 or more times per month.)
Alcohol use also increased with income.
Put succinctly, the recreational drugs preferred by affluent whites are the only legal ones,
Coca tea, a popular South America beverage, has the same safety profile as coffee. No overdose deaths have been documented In concentrated form, the primary alkaloid in the beverages — cocaine and caffeine, respectively — have a similar risk and tolerance profile. Pure caffeine is legal in the United States and sold under brand names such as Vivarin and NoDoz. However, the use of concentrated caffeine is rare because consumers prefer and have access to the drug in diluted form. By contrast, diluted cocaine is not legal or easily available in the United States. The illicit market trades in compact concentrate.
Alcohol kills 88,000 people a year, reports the CDC. It is an a class of its own as humankind’s most dangerous recreational drug, and, even then,kills only one of every 22,000 users annually and about one in every 300 users over a lifetime.
The country locked up about 1 in 500 residents from the end of alcohol Prohibition until President Nixon declared a war on drug users and sellers in 1971.
Before alcohol Prohibition, federal, state and local governments locked up about 1 in every 750 residents.
After alcohol Prohibition, the imprisonment rate dropped, but it never returned to its pre-Prohibition level.
Also noteworthy: State prisons and local jails held more than 90% of the additional prisoners that resulted from the Prohibition era’s soaring prison population, notwithstanding the fact that Prohibition was the result of a a federal constitutional amendment.
The alcohol Prohibition experience indicates that unwinding drug prohibition will certainly slash crime and the prison population, but it is unlikely the incarceration rate will return to traditional levels Alcohol Prohibition also shows that federal drug control policy is seen largely in local jails and state prisons.
How many is too many?
Federal, state and local governments kept 2,360,265 people behind bars in 2014. Another 4,708,100 were on parole or probation. In all, 2.82% of the the nation’s adult population of 250 million was under correctional control in 2014. More than 20 million adults are now felons or ex-felons, and more than 100 million offenders had criminal records in 2012.
As a measure of the extraordinary degree of over-imprisonment, the U.S. would have to release immediately:
- 1.73 million prisoners to return the pre-drug war level of locking up about 1 of 500.
- 1.57 million prisoners to return to the 1980 rate of locking up about 1 in 400.
- 745,000 prisoners to return to the 1990 rate of locking up 1 in 200.
Academics commonly express imprisonment numbers in rates per per 100,000.
Reported this way, the country’s incarceration rate was 746 of every 100,000 residents in 2013 vs. 197 of every 100,000 residents in 1972 . The historic high was 818 prisoners per 100,000 population in 2007.
Download and share data
A full data set and sourcing can be downloaded here in Excel.
Here is a chart that starts at 1900.