Mass incarceration in numbers

The United States is the epicenter of mass incarceration. From its origins in slavery to the rise of the War on Drugs in the late-twentieth century, the United States has incarcerated millions, disproportionately targeting and incarcerating Black people, other people of color, and people living in poverty.

The U.S. is home to 4 percent of the world’s population
Yet the U.S. is home to nearly 16% of all incarcerated people in the world

The number of people incarcerated in jails in prisons has increased dramatically since 1980: approximately two million people are incarcerated today, compared to roughly 500,000 in 1980. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of people incarcerated began to decrease, though local jails have since seen a slight uptick in incarceration.

Racial disparities in mass incarceration

Legal scholar Michelle Alexander writes that mass incarceration is the United States’s “new Jim Crow.” Black people and other people of color are incarcerated at much higher rates than their white counterparts. Recent evidence also suggests that although the population of incarcerated people has decreased since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, racial disparities have widened: the incarceration rates of Black and Latino/a people have decreased more slowly than the rate for white people.

Black people are incarcerated in state prisons at a rate nearly 4x that of white people
1 in 41
Black adults in the U.S. are incarcerated in state prisons
The impact and cost of mass incarceration

Proponents of the incarceration state often claim that putting people behind bars is the surest way to decrease crime. However, decades of research proves otherwise. A 2015 study concluded that since 2010, “the increased use of incarceration accounted for nearly zero percent of the overall reduction in crime.” At least 19 states have decreased both their crime rate and incarceration rate since 2000, from Alaska and Texas to Mississippi, New York, and Vermont.

Incarceration is also expensive. Vera’s research has shown that the United States spent roughly $33 billion on incarceration in 2000 for essentially the same level of public safety it achieved in 1975 for $7.4 billion—nearly a quarter of the cost.

Mass incarceration has steadily increased over the last four decades, disproportionately targeting Black people, other people of color, and those living in poverty, with few benefits and scores of harms. That’s why our team at Vera is working to end mass incarceration and treat people behind bars with dignity and respect.