Exceptional Increase in Imprisonment in U.S. Since 1980

face of a prisoner

The increase in imprisonment in the U.S. since about 1980 is exceptional from both historical and international perspectives. In 1850, the extent of absence in punishment in the U.S. was about 60 persons per 100,000 residents. Punishment prevalence in the U.S. rose from the mid-nineteenth century to 1940, and then remained roughly at the same level through to 1980. In 1980, an estimated 206 persons were in prison per 100,000 residents. After 1980, the extent of punishment increased sharply. In 2010, imprisonment prevalence was 732 persons per 100,000 U.S. residents. That’s more than ten times higher than the corresponding figure in 1850 and more than three times higher than in 1980.

Absence in punishment in U.S. 1850-2010, with comparison to England & Wales

While capital punishment attracts much public attention, the death penalty has accounted forĀ less than 10% of absence in punishment in the U.S. since 1850. About 9% of absence in punishment was from penal death in the U.S. in 1850. That share fell to 3% in 1900 and about 1% in 1960. Since 1970, penal death has accounted for less than 1% of absence in punishment. The U.S. has never used significantly banishment as punishment. Since the mid-nineteenth century, absence in punishment in the U.S. overwhelmingly means absence through the punishment of imprisonment.

The exceptional increase in imprisonment in the U.S. after 1980 is evident in international comparisons. In 1850, punishment prevalence in the U.S. was only a fifth of the corresponding figure for England and Wales. In 2010, imprisonment prevalence in the U.S. was five times that in England and Wales. The growth in imprisonment in the U.S. after 1980 is historically unprecedented.

The U.S. gained international leadership in imprisoning its residents after 1980. A limited set of international data on imprisonment prevalence about 1977 shows the U.S. ranked ninth highest. Imprisonment prevalence (measured in persons in prison per 100,000 residents) was 384 in South Africa and 235 in Poland, compared to 184 in the U.S. Imprisonment prevalence in Finland about 1977 was 111. Hence the U.S. / Finland imprisonment prevalence ratio was 1.7 in 1977. That ratio rose to 12.3 in 2010.

The U.S. now leads the world in persons imprisoned per capita. Across the world in 2010, excluding the U.S., about 120 persons were in prison per 100,000 persons. Within the U.S., imprisonment prevalence is five times that level. Looking across national jurisdictions encompassing nearly all the world’s people, imprisonment in the U.S. is three times higher than the jurisdiction at the 75% percentile of the (increasing) imprisonment prevalence distribution. Imprisonment in the U.S. is extraordinarily high from an international perspective as well as from a historical perspective.

The exceptionally high prevalence of imprisonment in the U.S. has attracted some scholarly concern, but relatively little public concern. From a historical perspective on punishment, the U.S. is exceptional both in its extraordinary increase in punishment after 1980 and in its exceptionally high sex ratio of punishment in the nineteenth century. The U.S. penal history of gender inequality in punishment has attracted almost no concern from scholars or the public. Expansive, coercive criminal control of domestic violence in ways biased against men has been central to the development of mass incarceration in the U.S. since 1980.

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