The actual number of Americans jailed or imprisoned, about 2.3 million

Each icon represents one incarcerated person
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The United States holds more people in jails and prisons than any other country by far, both in absolute numbers and as a percentage of population.

There are more incarcerated people than members of almost any profession. There are more incarcerated people than military personnel. There are more incarcerated people than bus drivers, bar tenders, and hair dressers combined. []

More Americans are incarcerated today than there have been Americans killed in all of the wars in all of history combined.

Incarceration compared to casualties of war []

Americans currently incarcerated (2.3M)
American war dead, all of history combined (1.3M)
American war wounded, all of history combined (1.5M)
While the incarcerated population is unfathomably large, it is just the tip of the iceberg.

The total correctional population []

Currently incarcerated (2.3M)
Will be incarcerated this year (4.9M)
Alive currently, will go to prison ever (10.9M)
Has a criminal record (77M)
Ever had an immediate family member incarcerated (113M)
Almost no one gets a trial.
Notice that the background icons have changed. The blue icons are the portion of incarcerated people who got trials, around 2%.
Almost all accused people are extorted into taking plea bargains under the threat of a longer sentence, the ruinous cost of mounting a defense, and the wildly under-resourced public defender system. []
No other country on earth incarcerates so many people without trial. While many countries around the world have rushed to adopt American style plea bargaining in recent years, not a single one uses it for such a large portion of cases. []
One quarter of incarcerated Americans have not even been convicted of a crime. Instead, they are mostly held in pre-trial detention, usually due to the high cost of cash bail. []
The red icons are the portion of incarcerated people who have not been convicted, mostly held in pre-trial detention.
Unconvicted Americans are the 4th largest incarcerated population in the world.

Largest incarcerated populations

1. USA (all)
2. China
3. Brazil
Americans jailed without conviction (555K)
 
5. Russia
6. India
You've probably heard that mass incarceration disproportionately impacts people of color, and that's true. But let's get one thing straight: there is no group in America, of any race or gender, that is immune from the terror of mass incarceration.
If we released...
all of the black Americans...
and all of the hispanic Americans...
and all of the women...
and all of the juveniles...
leaving only white men...
America would still incarcerate more people than the entire European Union combined.
Poland
France
Germany
Italy
Spain
Czech
Romania
Hungary
Portugal
Belgium
Slovakia
Netherlands
Greece
Bulgaria
Austria
Sweden
Lithuania
Ireland
Denmark
Latvia
Croatia
Finland
Estonia
Slovenia
Cyprus
Malta
Luxembourg
Czech Republic, Romania, Hungary, Portugal, Belgium, Slovakia, Netherlands, Greece, Bulgaria, Austria, Sweden, Lithuania, Ireland, Denmark, Latvia, Croatia, Finland, Estonia, Slovenia, Cyprus, Malta, and Luxembourg
Per capita we would still vastly outrank every single one of these countries. []
That said, Americans of color are indeed incarcerated at rates almost unheard of in the history of humanity.

Number incarcerated per 100,000 []

Average for all countries (174)
America (698)
Peak rate under Stalin (1,373)
Black people in America (2,303)
Black men in America (4,347)
About 1 in 3 black men will go to prison at some point in his life. Not jail, prison. []

Lifetime chance of going to prison []

Chart showing lifetime risk of incarceration.

Mass incarceration may not spark the same public outcry as the murder of unarmed people by police, but it has destroyed an uncountably greater number of families.

The highlighted icons equal the number of Americans killed by police each year—about 1,000. An outrageous number yes, but utterly dwarfed by the ocean of ruined lives hidden away behind prison walls. []

Imagine for a moment that George Floyd had been arrested instead of murdered. Given the maximum 20 year sentence for his alleged crime, he could have been imprisoned until age 66. The life expectancy for black men in America is 72 years. []

What violence would he have faced in prison? What grief and shame would his six year old daughter endure, living her formative years without him? What sort of life could he hope to make, if he ever made it out? We would never know. He would have become just another forgotten convict, crushed by the system. You would not know his name.

There he is. Somebody's father. Somebody's son. Alone and afraid, lost in an endless sea of anonymous suffering. His life, tossed away like garbage over a $20 bill.
Is this what justice looks like?
If we drill into individual age groups, it is almost impossible to find a meaningful comparison to American incarceration in public data.

Number incarcerated per 100,000 []

Saudi Arabia (197)
North Korea, high end UN estimate (800)
White men in America, age 30-34 (1,629)
Chinese Uighurs, NGO estimate (8,300)
Black men in America, age 30-34 (9,892)
Reasonable people can disagree about who, precisely, belongs behind bars. But surely we need to do better than this.
Knowing all of this forces us to ask an uncomfortable question.
What if we're not as free as we think we are?
Really sit with this question for a moment. For just ten seconds, resist the urge to explain this all away as normal or necessary.

Millions in jail without trial or conviction. Ethnic minorities rounded up in genocidal numbers. Babies in cages. Is this what freedom looks like?

History is full of repressed peoples who believed they were free. With the benefit of hindsight, we condescendingly label them "brainwashed," as though we are immune to this deception. What if you are like them? How would you know?

What if you've spent your whole life believing that you live in the freest country on earth, when the reality is precisely the opposite?

What if a better world were possible?

A better world is possible, and it's closer at hand than you might expect. It can be achieved in our lifetime. In this next section, we'll talk about what that world would look like and how we can make it.

The first thing you need to understand is that mass incarceration hasn't made us any safer.

Number of incarcerated Americans over time []

Chart showing lack of correlation between crime rates and incarceration. Canvas 1 Layer 1 1 million 2 million 1920 1980 2010 1950
For almost all of American history, until as recently as 1980, prison populations grew steadily and proportionally to the population as a whole.
Since mass incarceration began, crime has risen and fallen with no correlation to incarceration rates.

In 1984, 1985, 1986, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 2005, and 2006 we saw the violent crime rate and the incarceration rate increase simultaneously. In 2000, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2013, and 2014 we saw the violent crime rate and incarceration rate decrease simultaneously.

In 15 out of the 36 years shown in this chart, we observe the opposite effect that we would expect if incarceration was bringing down crime. To continue locking up this many people, we should require extremely strong evidence that it works. That evidence doesn't exist.

Virtually all research has concluded that mass incarceration has had a minimal impact on property crime, and zero impact on violent crime. []
In the next section, you'll be asked to select from a list of policy proposals aimed at reducing incarceration. Each time you select a policy, you will see the impact charted in real time.
number incarcerated 1M 2M
400
100
Incarcerated per 100K

Try out some policies

Check off each policy proposal to see how it would impact incarceration rates. The size of each bubble represents the number of people incarcerated in that country, while the vertical position represents the incarceration rate per capita. Tap or mouse over a country to reveal its name.

In this chart, the size of each dot represents the number of people incarcerated in that country. The vertical position represents the incarceration rate per capita.

In this section, you'll be asked to select from a list of policy proposals aimed at reducing incarceration. Each time you select a policy, the chart will be redrawn to show the overall impact.

Release all non-violent drug offenders? []

Eliminate cash bail for three-quarters of pre-trial defendants? []

Replace immigration detention with electronic monitoring? []

Reduce technical violations for probation and parole by sixty percent? []

Reduce sentences for property and public order crimes by a third? []

As you may have noticed in the previous section, even massive reforms barely make a dent.

How do we fix it then? Simple:

The heart of our problem is that America tries to solve every social ill with criminal justice, no matter how nonsensical that approach may be for the situation.

Dallas police chief David Brown summarized the problem in 2016 perfectly:

“Every societal failure, we put it on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding, let the cop handle it. Not enough drug addiction funding, let's give it to the cops. Here in Dallas we have a loose dog problem. Let's have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail, give it to the cops. Seventy-percent of the African American community is being raised by single women, let's give it to the cops to solve as well. That's too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems. I just ask other parts of our democracy along with the free press to help us.”

We spend over $13 billion per year incarcerating domestic abusers and treating their victims. [] Meanwhile, the Violence Against Women Act sets aside about half a billion for prevention. Why? Why is there infinite money for idiotic catch-and-release policies that guarantee re-victimization, when we all know that the real solution is a path to safety for victims of domestic violence?

In almost every category of criminal activity, there is a lower cost, more humane solution that would have prevented the crime from ever occurring in the first place.

The punitive vs. preventative anti-crime strategies

Sometimes a mix of punitive and preventative strategies are appropriate. Often the preventative strategy alone is more successful and cost effective.
The punitive strategy
The preventative strategy
A homeless man is sleeping on your porch.
Have him arrested. Set an unaffordable bail, and hold him in jail for weeks. Accept his guilty plea and fine him. Keep arresting him everywhere he sleeps. Spend $40,000 dollars per year jailing him and admitting him to emergency rooms until he dies. []
Put him in supportive housing. for literally half the cost. []
A woman is being beaten by her husband.
Arrest the husband, hold him overnight. Release him when she declines to press charges, because she can't make rent without him. Keep arresting him every other week. Offer him a voluntary alcohol treatment program that he declines. Spend $13 billion per year jailing abusers and treating their victims. []
Give her access to transitional housing so that she can permanently escape her abuser. Provide her with free child care so that she can work enough to become independent. []
A man is running down the street naked, bleeding, screaming about a microchip in his brain.
A local gang is dealing drugs at the playground, intimidating families.
Call the police who can't do anything because they are not visibly breaking any laws. Wait until a shooting match breaks out with a rival gang. Arrest the shooter and spend close to $1 million imprisoning him for nearly twenty years.
Deal with poverty so the gang never forms in the first place.
A group of college kids is smoking marijuana in the park.
Call the police. Arrest them, create a criminal record that will permanently complicate their employment prospects.
Don't do anything at all. This is not a behavior we need to prevent.
People keep driving around your neighborhood drunk.
Set up a police checkpoint near a local bar one day a week. Apprehend about 1 percent of drunk drivers. Bury 10,000 people a year who evade law enforcement.
Invest in sober transportation options, public awareness campaigns, and sobriety enforcing technology, in addition to police enforcement.
There have been a string of break-ins in your neighborhood.
File a police report. No suspect is ever caught, and your property is never returned.
People keep driving around with broken tail lights.
Spend billions deploying hundreds of thousands of officers to patrol every road in America. Pull people over and give them tickets they cannot afford. Issue bench warrants for the unpaid tickets. Pull them over for the same tail light again, and arrest them for the warrant. Jail them, fine them, suspend their license. Arrest them again for driving without a license. Make them lose their job because they can no longer drive. Shut off their electricity because they can't pay without a job. Fine them for stealing electricity. Keep arresting and fining them until their life unravels in a cloud of legal debts and court appearances. Leave most of the tail lights broken anyway.
None of these programs would be a magic bullet, and they would not completely eradicate the need for law enforcement. But with a combination of smart policing, expanded social programs, and less draconian sentencing we can reduce crime and spending at the same time.

Imagine how different our society would be if we took this route. Everyone would win! There would be fewer crime victims, fewer lives ruined by incarceration, lower taxes, and less risk to police. But our political climate has made this completely reasonable approach virtually unthinkable.

Is it really so radical to suggest that we can do better?

Our leaders will blather on about the burden these programs put on "taxpayers" but they don't actually care about that, they only care that the solution feels sufficiently punitive. This pointless refusal to implement workable policies has been a catastrophe for society, directly costing billions to taxpayers and sucking literally trillions out of the economy in lost productivity and excess crime [(citation)].

It's tempting to think of incarceration as something that happens to abstract, far-away strangers, but that is wrong. It could happen to you.

In 2006 then 17 year old George Alvarez was arrested for being drunk in public. While awaiting his court date, guards beat him, and then falsely claimed self defense to explain his injuries. Threatened with 10 years in prison for an assault he did not commit, he plead guilty and served 4 years before video evidence exonerated him. All because he was drunk in public one time. []

Have you ever been drunk in public? Have you ever been in a physical fight with a family member? [] Have you ever forgotten to pay a speeding ticket? []

Even a very short period of incarceration can be massively destabilizing. Think for one moment what would happen if you were jailed for sixty days, starting today. Would you still have a job when you came out? Would you have a home? Who would take care of your kids? Who would feed your dog?

It doesn't have to be this way. We can have a sane prison policy without compromising public safety. We could house every homeless person. We could treat every addict. Educate every child. Meet the needs of every person driven to theft by the cost of food, shelter, and healthcare. But we don't.

Instead, we wage war on the poor, the sick, and the addicted. We drive the homeless from their camps with guns and batons. We leave abused women and children to be crushed at the hands of their tormentors. Our government's only strategy to deal with the sick and the poor is to punish them and keep punishing them until they magically stop being sick and poor. It isn't working.

There is no human development goal beyond our reach. We could build a society that is more just, more peaceful, and more prosperous than any that has ever existed on the planet. Millions could be freed from cages, and millions more could be freed from the burden of crime.

Push away the cynical voice inside yourself that says this can't be done. Forget the lifetime of politicians claiming that you need to be caged; that freeing you would lead to anarchy; that your poverty is a moral failing; that your pain is deserved; that your needs cannot be met. You know in your heart it isn't true.

You know in your heart that this society could be ours. All we need to do is make it.

A better world is possible.

Incarceration in real numbers is a project by Matt Korostoff. Learn more about this page.