U.S. Prison Population

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The United States (U.S.) has the highest population of incarcerated individuals worldwide. What is the total prison population in America, and why did it rise that high?  

The total prison population is one of the factors that can affect the current criminal justice system in the U.S. 

This article will provide information about the prison population in the United States and discuss why the population has grown to such numbers.

If you are looking for a comprehensive database to find information about jail and prison facilities in the U.S., you can visit lookupinmate.org

Our website can help you find much-needed information about jails and prisons and records of inmates housed in more than 7,000 correctional facilities in the country.

The U.S. Is the World’s Leader in Incarceration

In the last 40 years, the U.S. prison population significantly increased by 500%. 

However, there are problems associated with a growing inmate population. The projected overcrowding that may happen in prisons and the budget increase to support the straining penal system can burden states. 

What Is the U.S. Prison Population 2022?

Statistics for the U.S. prison population for 2022 are still incomplete. However, before the pandemic, the estimated number of people in prison was around  2.2 million. The average prison term is 2.6 years, not including the lengthier sentences for murder and other felonies. 

Compared to 2008, the number has dropped significantly from 2.3 million, especially during the pandemic. Still, the U.S. houses a fifth (20%) of the entire world’s prison population. 

America’s Incarceration Rate Falls to Lowest Level Since 1995

Despite the 500% rise in the correctional population in 40 years, the U.S. incarceration rate decreased the most in 2019. 

The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) showed data regarding this decrease. However, the U.S. still puts more people into prison than any other country. 

Changes in criminal laws have helped reduce the rates of incarceration since 1995. There is a decline in property crime rates, but murder and other violent offenses have increased. 

Former President Donald Trump also helped lessen the number of prisoners in the United States by shortening sentences for thousands of offenders.

What Happened to Prison and Jail Populations During the Pandemic?

During the beginning of the pandemic, the prison system reduced prison and jail populations by 15-25%.  

In 2021, the U.S. prison population was estimated at 1.8 million, much lower than in 2019. The decrease in jail inmates was due to the justice system slowing down their processing cases more than any criminal justice reform program results. 

However, as the pandemic slowly eased, the legal system gradually rebounded, and the imprisonment rate is already slowly showing an increase. 

The United States’ Growth of Incarceration: Exploring Causes and Consequences: How Did This Happen?

The incarceration growth rate in the United States has many factors and may result in numerous consequences. To comprehend this phenomenon, you must understand its leading cause and how it happened.

More People Were Being Sent to Prison

Before the pandemic, people were sent to prison at a higher rate due to numerous drug-related offenses. However, many people spend time in local jails because they fail to post bail. 

Bails allow the accused to post bail and enjoy limited freedom until the case has been tried in court. 

People in Prisons and Jails for Drug Offenses, 1980 to 2019

Since the 1980s, more Americans have been sent to prison because of the government’s war on drugs. 

The incarcerated population rose from 40,900 in the ‘80s to 430,926 in 2019. Prison time for drug offenses has also lengthened from 22 months to an average prison time of 62 months by 2004. 

Drug convictions make up nearly half of the federal prison population. At state-level prisons, incarceration due to drug offenses has declined over the years. 

Most prisoners in state prisons are not major players in the drug industry, and many have no prior convictions or violent offenses. 

People Were Being Sent to Prison for Much Longer Terms

Since 1984, the number of people serving lifetime sentences grew to one in seven despite the decline in violent crimes. As a result, the prison population remains constant despite a significant reduction in serious offenses. 

Number of People Serving Life Sentences, 1984 to 2020

There are more than 200,000 inmates in the U.S. currently serving life sentences

It is the highest number of people in prison serving life with and without parole and prison times of over 50 years. 

Out of the 200,000 prisoners, 3,972 have life sentences for drug-related crimes, of which 38% serve their time in the federal prison system. 

Mass Incarceration Has Not Touched All Communities Equally

The racial distribution of people in prison is equal. You may see a growing trend of racial disparity inside prisons, especially among minorities. 

It is a statistical fact that needs to be looked into to avoid the belief of systemic discrimination in the country’s prison system. 

The Racial Impact of Mass Incarceration

Reports have shown that African Americans are imprisoned nearly five times more than white Americans, with approximately 1,240 per 100,000 residents. 

The rate for Latino and Hispanic Americans is 1.3 times more than for white Americans, or roughly 349 per 100,000 people. 

Lifetime Likelihood of Imprisonment for U.S. Residents Born in 2001

The Bureau of Justice Statistics states that if the high rates of incarceration continue, 6.6% of all people born in 2001 will go to a federal prison in their lifetime. 

In comparison, 4.3 million U.S. residents were in prison in 2001. 

Mass Incarceration and Public Safety

There is a relationship between incarceration and public safety. This section will provide insight into the effectiveness of prison time in reducing crimes, especially among the youth. 

Incarceration Has Some Impact on Crime, but the Impact Is One of Diminishing Returns.

Surprisingly, the crime rates in the United States started to decline way back in the 1990s. 

According to the Sentencing Project, which is an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., focused on improving the justice system, the main reason the prison population in the U.S. is still high despite the lowering crime rates is because of the lengthier sentences. 

People are serving longer prison sentences, which burdens the federal government. If you look at the available statistics, the United States has 40% of all prisoners serving life sentences, and 83% of those life sentences have no chance of parole

Incarcerations have been ineffective in reducing crime rates, particularly among youth. Juvenile crimes are often associated with violent groups and gangs getting involved in criminal activities. 

Imprisoning these people will have little effect in curbing the crime rate as they are easily replaced by other juvenile delinquents or people in desperate need of income or under severe drug addiction. 

The High Costs of Low-Level Offenses

One of the main reasons for incarceration is violating probation and parole policies for misdemeanors and noncriminal violations. 

Therefore, low-level offenses turn into prison terms, which cost money that could be used to create community initiatives to resolve the problem proactively. 

Probation and Parole Violations and “Holds” Lead to Unnecessary Incarceration

If you are unfamiliar with the term “holds,” these administrative reasons may result in a person’s incarceration, even for noncriminal offenses.

A parole or probation officer may file a “hold” for anyone suspected of violating their terms. Once a detainer or hold is issued, a person loses the ability to get released through bail. 

Recent data show that 1 in 5 people in jail is due to probation or parole violations. This problem also affects state prisons as 1 in 4 inmates are incarcerated due to supervision violations. 

Misdemeanors: Minor Offenses With Major Consequences

Another system that may require policy changes is the misdemeanor system, which is one of the contributors to mass incarceration in the United States. 

Instances like jaywalking and sitting on a sidewalk may result in jail time

The misdemeanor system is responsible for an estimated 13 million charges yearly, resulting in about 25% of all jail bookings nationwide. 

“Low-Level Fugitives” Live in Fear of Incarceration for Missed Court

Other reasons for the inflation of incarcerations are punishment due to not appearing in court and not paying fines and fees. 

A bench warrant may be issued for failing to appear in court, directing law enforcement to place offenders in jail. 

Bench warrants have a profound effect on the ballooning jail population. 

Areas like Monroe County, New York, have over 3,000 individuals with active bench warrants at any time, which is three times the population in their county jails. 

Significant Reforms in Recent Years

Over the years, the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) have made many improvements in the penal system. 

Here are some of the developments these agencies mandated to oversee the condition of prisons nationwide. 

After Nearly 40 Years of Continued Growth, the U.S. Prison Population Has Stabilized in Recent Years.

The declining crime rates were partially achieved through changes in policies of criminal justice reforms. For more than a decade, these reforms evolved toward ensuring that solutions are based on evidence and common sense. 

At the State Level

One example of changes in state policy occurred in California in 2014 when voters passed a ballot that classified low-level property and drug offenses as misdemeanors. 

In 2009, New York reformed the Rockefeller drug laws that placed harsh minimum sentences for low-level drug crimes. These policy changes reduced the instances of unnecessary incarceration.

At the Federal Level

In 2010, the Fair Sentencing Act was passed, providing adequate changes in dealing with drug offenses. The act attempts to resolve the mass incarceration problem, which is gradually observed today.

In 2014, the United States Sentencing Commission voted to reduce the sentences of more than 46,000 inmates serving prison time for drug offenses. 

Criminal Justice System: Law Enforcement

Law enforcement is responsible for all investigations related to crime. They are also responsible for gathering evidence, identifying, and apprehending a presumed crime suspect. 

As of 2020, more than 600,000 law enforcement personnel are actively serving in the United States. 

The Fourth Amendment also protects against unreasonable searches and seizures. It is one of the basic rights upheld by law enforcement alongside the reciting of Miranda rights, which reminds people of their right to remain silent and their right to an attorney.  

Police Brutality

Cases of police brutality have been part of law enforcement history. You can find cases of inhumane police treatment of people throughout history in every country. 

Statistics show that roughly 900 to 1,100 people are shot and killed by U.S. police each year. However, only a handful of law enforcement officers have been arrested for these fatal shootings. 

Public Perception of Police Brutality and Racial Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Racism has undoubtedly stained the integrity of the police force in the country. 

This situation is further worsened by the actual statistics on the disparity in the demographics and ethnicity of people subjected to brutality or unjust apprehension by law enforcement. 

There is an overwhelming consensus among the Black community that white people are treated better by the police, of which 63% of white adults agree. 

However, Black people make up only 13.4% of the U.S. population and 22% of all fatal police shootings, not including non-lethal shootings involving law enforcement. 

The Effects of Police Brutality on Mental Health

It was evident that police killings, now quickly reported and magnified by traditional and social media, have a significant impact on Americans’ mental health. 

Research showed that every unarmed shooting involving Black Americans results in a mental health burden comparable to the stress and strain experienced by people living with diabetes. 

Moreover, fatal encounters with the police are the 6th leading cause of death for men in all racial groups aged 25 to 29. Also, the risk of dying from police brutality is highest for men and women aged 20 to 35. 

The Cost of Police Brutality

In  2019, New York City paid $175.9 million in claims and civil judgments for lawsuits linked to police-related incidents. 

On the other hand, the City of Chicago paid $500 million for police-related lawsuits from 2004 to 2014. 

Criminal Justice System: The Courts

Understanding the criminal justice system requires you to understand its two halves: the courts and the corrections system. 

The court system is the venue where justice is pursued. It is where cases are tried, the evidence examined, testimonies scrutinized, and sentences determined. The courts recognize the individual rights stated by the constitution, such as:

  • The right against self-incrimination
  • The right to counsel
  • The right to face your accuser
  • The right to a trial by jury

Criminal Justice System: Corrections

The correctional branch involves the criminal justice system that oversees the administration of prison programs, paroles, and probation

From 1980 to 2015, the number of inmates reached its highest incarceration rate resulting in almost three million people in prison. However, during the onset of the pandemic, the imprisonment rates have also declined. 

The correctional systems have spent $81 billion to cover all the expenses of housing millions of prisoners in jails, state prisons, and federal penitentiaries nationwide. 

Effects of Incarceration

Though incarceration is intended to be a deterrent and a method of rehabilitation and correction, problems have arisen because of the sheer number of inmates and detainees in U.S. jails and prisons

Despite inmates’ constitutional rights against cruel and unusual punishment, inhumane conditions in prisons still happen, and they are usually at maximum capacity. 

The absence of measures to respond to overcrowding causes more problems for the inmates. 

COVID-19 and Infectious Diseases

The pandemic had a significant effect on the criminal justice system. More than 68,000 cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in prisons nationwide. 

During the height of the pandemic, prisons experienced a 73% increase in death due to COVID-19. You can find the five largest virus clusters inside correctional facilities in the United States. 

Penal Labor and Prison Industrial Complex

Other cases where prisoners are exploited are through the penal labor system. Prisoners do not get employment rights while incarcerated, so they are subjected to labor with wages that are way below minimum standards. 

Some corporations benefit from penal labor, as companies employ 7% of state prisoners and 18% of federal inmates. 

Inmates’ salaries can range from $1 per hour and can go as low as 12 cents per hour. 

The Texas correctional industry was already valued at $88.9 million in 2014. The estimated year value of prison and jail industrial production is roughly $2 billion.

Death Penalty

African Americans are more likely to be convicted and given death penalties than any other race in the United States. 

Black men have higher rates of getting severe punishment than white men or other racial groups. 

In 2000 alone, you can see significantly higher percentages of Black people on death row in the following states:

Aside from the Black adult population, 66% of juveniles receiving death sentences are people of color. 

Cycle of Incarceration

Every year, 650,000 Americans are released from prison, but about half of them will be imprisoned again in the next few years. 

Many factors that cause this are the lack of stable employment after their release, which according to research, is the foremost predictor of recidivism or the relapse into criminal behavior.

Offense Categories Might Not Mean What You Think

In some cases, the crime a person is convicted for does not reflect the actual events that placed them in prison. 

There are cases where people tried for murder include accomplices that have not participated in the actual killing. 

Lookouts in crimes like burglary, where someone was killed accidentally, can also be convicted of murder. 

Thus, people who did not intentionally end other people’s lives are categorized as serial killers and murderers. It makes reentry to society harder because of the criminal categories a prisoner is placed in. 

Myths About Mass Incarceration

Myths are always part of the intrigue that envelops the criminal justice system. It can also be influenced and promoted by mainstream media, Hollywood, and the internet. 

Knowing these myths and distinguishing the truth is vital to get a clearer picture of prison life in the United States. 

Private Prisons Are at the Heart of Mass Incarceration Corruption

Only 8% of all prisoners are in private prisons, making it unlikely to be the heart of corruption in the criminal justice system. 

Most of the incarcerated population is housed in public prisons and jails. However, most of the profit from mass incarceration goes to private businesses that cater food, health services, commissary functions, and inmate calls

Prisons Are “Factories Behind Fences” That Exist to Provide Companies With a Huge Slave Labor Force

Private companies employ only 1% of prisoners through the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP.) 

It is a program aimed at developing an inmate’s marketable skills and preparing them for economic stability after their rehabilitation and reintegration into society. 

Releasing “Nonviolent Drug Offenders” Would End Mass Incarceration

Drug offenses account for the arrest and possible imprisonment of more than one million people yearly. 

The criminal justice system must reform its prison policy on responding to serious offenses and reducing the incarceration rate for nonserious and even benign offenses. 

By Definition, “Violent Crime” Involves Physical Harm

Did you know that state and federal laws may apply the term “violent” to criminal acts that do not involve physical harm? 

Some states label purse-snatching, stealing drugs, and even manufacturing illegal drugs as violent crimes. 

Another example is burglary which becomes a violent crime when under specific situations. 

When a robbery happens at night, in a private residence with a weapon, the criminals can be charged with a violent crime even if there is no one inside the building during the break-in. 

A violent crime can have a lengthy prison sentence. 

People in Prison for Violent or Sexual Crimes Are Too Dangerous to Be Released

At the moment, people often judge criminals by their offense category than the actual crime and their personal circumstances. 

The result is the notion that prisoners charged with violent or sexual crimes are incapable of reforming and must be put in prison for the remainder of their lives. 

Recidivism: A Slippery Statistic

Recidivism is the return of a person to criminality. It is a relapse in behavior that can result in a person committing the same offenses again or committing graver crimes than before. 

However, studies on recidivism show that some individuals who are released from prison for violent offenses get rearrested not for committing the same crime but for lower-level crimes resulting in jail time. 

For example, a person released after a robbery conviction may get rearrested due to a public disorder charge or a liquor ban offense, which is less severe. However, this may be labeled as recidivism.

Crime Victims Support Long Prison Sentences

There are instances when judges, policymakers, and prosecutors use victims to justify lengthy prison terms for violent offenses. 

However, victims actually favor spending more time and effort on violence prevention than incarceration. 

Mass incarceration costs money. Therefore, it is best to create preventive measures to avoid violence and address the root cause of the crime. 

Some People Need to Go to Jail to Get Treatment and Services

There is a growing misconception that prisoners must be imprisoned to receive treatment in local jails. 

However, in reality, many people go in and out of jail without getting the necessary medical services they people need. 

There are cases also where medication is interrupted after an individual is sent to jail. It is because medical care is inadequate in local jails and prisons have incomplete medical equipment to cater to the needs of inmates. 

Why Expanding Community Supervision the Best Way to Reduce Incarceration

Community supervision may be a better option than incarceration, but the conditions and policies in this program are so restrictive that people often fail. 

Burdensome requirements accompany longer supervision terms, and electronic surveillance makes this type of prison term alternative challenging to accomplish.

Lessons One Can Learn From the Smaller “Slices”: Youth, Immigration, and Involuntary Commitment

Out of 49,000 incarcerated youths, 5,000 are behind bars due to noncriminal violations. Most of these offenders serve time in detention facilities due to failure to follow probation policies and awaiting trial.

In Louisiana, detained youths are planned to be housed in adult prisons, which some people believe to be a violation of the law. 

It is also noteworthy that around 9,800 youths in immigration detention centers are unaccompanied youth refugees still waiting for placement with their family and friends in the United States. 

Beyond the “Whole Pie”: Community Supervision, Poverty, and Race and Gender Disparities

Understanding the main cause of mass incarceration shows that people inside prisons are not the only ones impacted by the criminal justice system. 

There are more than 800,000 people on parole and around 2.9 million people on probation.

Further Information

Jails vs. Prisons: What Is the Difference?

Prisons are facilities run by the state or federal government where people convicted of felonies serve their prison time. 

On the other hand, jails are centers where people awaiting trial are detained. People in jail normally are offenders of crimes with no bail or individuals who have failed to post bail as they wait for the trial date. 

Pre-trial Remand Prison Population: Trend

Jails are slowly being congested with people detained for pretrial. Due to these individuals waiting for a trial, they are technically presumed innocent. 

However, many people incarcerated in jails are due to the inability of the plaintiff to post bail, for which the median cost is $10,000 ad up for felonies. 

The number of people in the U.S. that are detained in jails that are presumed innocent is more than 400,000. 

Female Prison Population: Trend

From 1980, women’s incarcerations increased by more than 475%. 

From 1980 to 2020, women’s population in prison increased from 26,326 to 152.854.  African American women also tend to get arrested and face jail terms more compared to the racial groups in the country. 

Prison Population Trend Up to 2000

The following are some of the trends in prison since the year 2000. 

  • The state prison population was reduced by 6,200 inmates in the last six months of 2000.
  • State prisons operated between 15% and full capacity, while federal prisons operated at 31% and above capacity.
  • In 2000, female inmates in state and federal prisons totaled 91,612. On the other hand, male prisoners increased by 77% or 1,290,280 inmates.


1. What is the U.S. prison population in 2020?

In 2020, the United States held over 1.2 million prisoners in state and federal prisons. The trend is declining, especially during the pandemic. 

2. Does the U.S. have 22% of the world’s prison population?

The U.S. has more than 20% of the world’s prison inmates. Since 1970, inmate numbers have increased by 500%. 

Today, the prisoner population has risen significantly and outpaced population growth and crime rates. 

3. What country has the highest prison population?

Here are the top countries with the most people in prison:

  • United States 2,068,800
  • China 1,690,000
  • Brazil 811,707
  • India 478,600
  • Russia 471,490
  • Thailand 309,282
  • Turkey 291,198
  • Indonesia 266,259
  • Mexico 220,866
  • Iran 189,000

If you need to learn more about the United States prison population, you may find additional information on the United States Department of Justice and the National Institute of Justice’s websites. Note that these websites use “.gov.”


  1. America’s incarceration rate falls to lowest level since 1995
  2. Criminal Justice Facts
  3. PrevalenceofImprisonmentin theU.S.Population,1974-2001
  4. Number of full-time law enforcement officers in the United States from 2004 to 2020
  5. 5. Criminal Justice Fact Sheet

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