Some 2.3 million people in the United States are currently being held in jail, prison, or a correctional facility, the equivalent of 698 per 100,000 residents, a report from the Prison Policy Initiative finds.
According to the report, Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2019, the American criminal justice system currently holds 1.3 million people in state prisons; 612,000 people in local jails; 221,000 people in federal prisons and jails; 61,000 people (including 11,800 children) in immigration detention; and 46,000 people in juvenile justice facilities. Of those held in local jails, 462,000, or 75 percent, are in pretrial detention — many of them detained simply because they cannot afford bail. According to the report, the median bail amount for a felony in the U.S. is $10,000, which represents eight months' income for the typical person in pretrial detention. In addition to those behind bars, another 3.6 million are on probation and 840,000 are on parole.
Funded in part by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's Safety and Justice Challenge and the Public Welfare Foundation, the study examines five "myths" about mass incarceration: that releasing non-violent drug offenders would end mass incarceration; that private prisons are the main cause of the problem; that prisons exist to provide a slave labor force for private companies; that expanding community supervision is the best way to reduce incarceration; and that people incarcerated for violent or sexual crimes are too dangerous to be released.
To end mass incarceration, the report argues, reforms will have to go beyond non-violent drug offenses, which account for just a fifth of the incarcerated population. Indeed, given that people convicted of a violent offense are less likely to re-offend after release than those convicted of property, drug, or public order offenses, ending mass incarceration will require changes in the response to violent offenses.
"With such high public support for criminal justice reform, it's urgent that we have a clear picture of who is locked up and where," said Wendy Sawyer, who co-authored the report with Peter Wagner. "For instance, many people don't realize how much of mass incarceration is local. But one in four incarcerated people — and one in four ICE detainees — are held in local jails controlled by county sheriffs."
(Photo credit: Equal Justice Initiative)