Pew Center on the States reports that more than one in 100 adults in the United States are in jail or prison. This is costing state governments more than $49 billion a year on corrections, up from $11 billion 20 years before. In addition, the Federal government spends more than $5 billion.
With more than 2.3 million people behind bars at the start of 2008, the United States leads the world in both the number and the percentage of residents incarcerated, leaving even far more populous China a distant second.
The ballooning prison population is largely the result of tougher state and federal sentencing imposed since the mid-1980s. Minorities have been hit particularly hard: One in nine black men age 20 to 34 is behind bars.
Men are still roughly 13 times more likely to be incarcerated, but the female population is expanding at a far brisker pace. For black women in their mid- to late-30s, the incarceration rate also has hit the one-in-100 mark.
In addition, one in every 53 adults in their 20s is behind bars, including 1 in 30 men; the rate for those over 55 is one in 837.
While studies generally find that imprisoning more offenders reduces crime, the effect is influenced by changes in the unemployment rate, wages, the ratio of police officers to residents, and the share of young people in the population.
In addition, when it comes to preventing repeat offenses by nonviolent criminals -- who make up about half of the incarcerated population -- alternative punishments such as community supervision and mandatory drug counseling that are far less expensive may prove just as or more effective than jail time.