The United States currently incarcerates a higher share of its population than any other country in the world. The U.S. incarceration rate — 753 per 100,000 people in 2008 — is now about 240 percent higher than it was in 1980.
We calculate that a reduction by one-half in the incarceration rate of non-violent offenders would lower correctional expenditures by $16.9 billion per year and return the U.S. to about the same incarceration rate we had in 1993 (which was already high by historical standards). The large majority of these savings would accrue to financially squeezed state and local governments, amounting to about one-fourth of their annual corrections budgets. As a group, state governments could save $7.6 billion, while local governments could save $7.2 billion.
A review of the extensive research on incarceration and crime suggests that these savings could be achieved without any appreciable deterioration in public safety.
Other findings include:
- In 2008, one of every 48 working-age men (2.1 percent of all working-age men) was in prison or jail.
- In 2008, the U.S. correctional system held over 2.3 million inmates, about two-thirds in prison and about one-third in jail.
- Non-violent offenders make up over 60 percent of the prison and jail population. Non- violent drug offenders now account for about one-fourth of all offenders behind bars, up from less than 10 percent in 1980.
- The total number of violent crimes was only about three percent higher in 2008 than it was in 1980, while the total number of property crimes was about 20 percent lower. Over the same period, the U.S. population increased about 33 percent and the prison and jail population increased by more than 350 percent.
- Crime can explain only a small portion of the rise in incarceration between 1980 and the early 1990s, and none of the increase in incarceration since then. If incarceration rates had tracked violent crime rates, for example, the incarceration rate would have peaked at 317 per 100,000 in 1992, and fallen to 227 per 100,000 by 2008 — less than one third of the actual 2008 level and about the same level as in 1980.
John Schmitt is a Senior Economist, Kris Warner is a Program Assistant, and Sarika Gupta is a Research Intern at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. This article was first published by CEPR (June 2010) under a Creative Commons license.