The actual number of Americans jailed or imprisoned, about 2.3 million
Each icon represents one incarcerated person
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Largest incarcerated populations
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.
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.
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.
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.
Try out some policies
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.
As you may have noticed in the previous section, even massive reforms barely make a dent.
How do we fix it then? Simple:
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.”
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
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. 
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.