Why Are There So Many Americans in Prison?

Other External Scholars:
Steven Raphael, University of California, Berkeley
Project Date:
Jun 2008
Award Amount:
Project Programs:
Non-Program Activities

Americans stay in prison longer, and for a wider range of offenses, than their counterparts in other nations. The United States had 2.3 million people in prison or jail in 2007—more than any other country in the world. That’s nearly 751 incarcerated individuals for every 100,000 in the population. The median for all nations is 125 people per 100,000. For some groups, the numbers are especially alarming: about 1 in 36 Hispanic adults and 1 in 15 African American adults have been in prison. In fact, 1 in 9 African American men aged 20-34 have been in prison. Since the mid-1970s, the state prison population in the United States has nearly quadrupled and the rate of incarceration in local jails has more than tripled.


Why are so many Americans in prison and what factors explain the dramatic increase in incarceration rates in such a short period of time? How has our large prison population influenced crime rates and what has it cost American communities? Just as important, what are the roles of harsher sentencing laws, the legacy of racial discrimination, and the lack of an effective social safety net? Since 2000, Russell Sage Foundation has supported research documenting both the trends and the social and economic effects of the recent incarceration boom—most recently a working group directed by Steven Raphael and Michael Stoll to assess the actual public safety benefits and total fiscal and social costs of this phenomenon. The results of that collaboration have been published in the Russell Sage Foundation volume Do Prisons Make Us Safer? The Benefits and Costs of the Prison Boom. Raphael and Stoll will now take the next step in their research to look specifically at the extent to which the build up in the prison population was caused by policy choices (such as tough enforcement) and/or behavior (such as the increase in criminal activity). Their research will use a wide and diverse set of data sources—from Census micro-data to specialized administrative and survey data—to outline comprehensively the factors that have contributed to mass incarceration.


The project will analyze new prison admissions flows—not just the total number of prisoners at different points in time. Raphael and Stoll argue that a large share of the increase in the incarceration rate is the result of increases in prison admissions. In order to understand the causes of increased admissions, they will distinguish between increases due to changes in crime patterns, changes in enforcement practices, and changes in the tendency to send to prison the person(s) arrested for a specific crime. The investigators will isolate the proportion of the increase in incarceration rates attributable to changes in each of these areas by modeling what would happen to incarceration rates under different conditions (if, for example, crime rates remained unchanged or harsher sentencing policies were introduced). Raphael and Stoll will also consider how higher incarceration rates, which increasingly include older offenders or others committing less serious crimes, have affected crime reduction. Finally, the investigators will produce a book based on this research that also considers the policy implications—an issue of great importance, as the nation comes to terms with the costly effects of its policy choices on poor and minority communities and as states confront the strain on their budgets resulting from increased spending on corrections.


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