The American criminal justice system houses nearly 2.3 million people in 1,833 state prisons, 110 federal prisons, 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,134 local jails, 218 immigration detention facilities, and 80 Indian Country jails, as well as military prisons, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and state psychiatric hospitals. This works out to about 94 inmates per 100,000 people — which is more than any other country in the world.
In 2017, there were approximately 743,500 arrests made in the United States. If current trends continue, the number of Americans in prison or jail will increase by 20% by 2020. There are currently about 1.5 million people incarcerated in the United States, with a total cost of $70 billion dollars annually.
In 2016, there were almost 700,000 arrests for drug offenses alone. This represents a rate of about one in 100 adults. Incarceration rates are particularly high among minorities. Black men are about eight times more likely than white men to be arrested for drugs even though they use drugs at about the same rate.
About half of all prisoners are estimated to be there for some type of drug offense. Another 23% are in prison for crimes such as violence, theft, and property offenses. About 7% are in custody for violations of our immigration laws.
Immigration enforcement has become a large business with hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue at both the federal and state level.
According to U.S. Department of Justice statistics, there were 133,000 state and federal convicts imprisoned in privately operated prisons in the United States as of 2013, accounting for 8.4 percent of the total U.S. prison population. Private prisons house approximately 5% of the state prison population and 10% of the federal prison population.
Private prisons are facilities that contract with local, state, or federal governments to provide incarceration services. Some private prisons are located inside other buildings or structures (for example, a county jail), others exist independently under their own roof. The terms "private prison" and "correctional facility" are used interchangeably by government agencies and newspapers. Although they share similar goals of security and rehabilitation, private prisons operate under different business models than traditional prisons. Most private prisons accept payments only from the government agency that contracts them, although a few allow for private funding alongside public money. No private prisons accept payment from the convicted individuals they hold captive.
The first private prison was built in England in 1833. Since then, private prisons have been constructed across the world, most often in countries with inadequate public prison systems. The increasing number of prisoners has led to a corresponding increase in the number of private prisons.
In the United States, two main types of private prisons exist: for-profit and non-profit.
In recent years, the number of people incarcerated in the United States has increased dramatically. From 196,000 in 1970 to 1,570,000 in 2010, the number of convicts in federal and state prisons climbed (a more than 700 percent increase). Tougher sentencing regulations resulted in increased jail sentence lengths and actual time spent by prisoners. The rate of incarceration for females has risen even faster than that of males—from 2 per 100 adults in 1980 to 5 per 100 in 2010. Not only has the overall rate of incarceration increased, but also the proportion of our population that is imprisoned: 0.5% in 1970, up to 6.8% in 2010.
The reasons for this rise are complex but can be divided into two main categories: political and social. Politically, there has been growing support for harsher sentences for crimes such as drug trafficking and crime in general. This support has come from both politicians on the local level and lawmakers at the federal level. Socially, there have been changes in what types of offenses are viewed as serious enough to warrant imprisonment. For example, before 1982 it was not considered a criminal offense to use or possess drugs not specifically listed as illegal substances; after that date anyone convicted of importing or distributing heroin, cocaine, marijuana, or LSD would receive a felony conviction on their records. Finally, prison populations have increased because offenders are being sent away for longer periods of time.
The states and the District of Columbia added 52,331 inmates, while the federal system added 6,355 convicts. The 1990 rise increases the overall growth in the jail population since 1980 to 441,422, a more than 134 percent increase during the 10-year period (table 1).
Of this number, about half are being held in state facilities, the other half by the federal government. Almost one out of every 100 Americans is now behind bars or on parole/probation.
Arrests can vary significantly between countries and within countries over time. One factor that affects arrests is the presence of drug trafficking organizations that use violence or coercion to control drug use. For example, in Mexico marijuana production and use have become major sources of income for violent criminal groups. In response, the government has been forced to dedicate significant resources toward combating crime.
Another factor is the severity of laws regarding drugs. Countries such as Germany and Switzerland that have strict drug policies see reductions in addiction and overdose deaths. By contrast, countries such as Colombia and Peru that have very lax drug policies see increases in these outcomes.
Still another factor is racial profiling. Studies have shown that blacks and Latinos are disproportionately targeted by police searches and arrests. This is particularly true in areas with high rates of poverty and unemployment.