One in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections

Mar 02, 2009

Last year, the Pew Center on the States reported that for the first time, more than 1 in every 100 adults in the United States was confined behind bars. That sobering news came as a shock for many Americans and sparked discussions about incarceration and its fiscal and social costs in the media, at universities, in statehouses, and around dinner tables.

For policy makers, the 1 in 100 milestone was a reminder that state policy choices have driven the rise in prison populations. The explosive prison growth of the past 30 years didn’t happen by accident, and it wasn’t driven primarily by crime rates or broad social and economic forces beyond the reach of state government. It was the direct result of sentencing, release and other correctional policies that determine who goes to prison and how long they stay.

Adding up all probationers and parolees, prisoners and jail inmates, you’ll find America now has more than 7.3 million adults under some form of correctional control. That whopping figure is more than the populations of Chicago, Philadelphia, San Diego and Dallas put together, and larger than the populations of 38 states and the District of Columbia. During Ronald Reagan’s first term as president, 1 in every 77 adults was under the control of the correctional system in the United States. Now, 25 years later, it is 1 in 31, or 3.2 percent of all adults.

Read the full report on the Pew Center on the States Web page.

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