Incarceration in America

Stephen Howard — Stone River Law

Real Experience. Real Results.

Incarceration in America

Last Updated

October 15, 2019

Rising Incarceration Rates

Over the past 40 years the United States prison population has skyrocketed by nearly 500% despite the fact that the national crime rate has dropped significantly. In the United States today there are over 2.2 million people behind bars (prison and jail) – the highest total number of inmates in any country in the world. The United States also has the highest incarceration rate of any country, more than 600 inmates per 100,000 population.

Utah’s incarceration rates are lower than the overall rates in the United States, but still significantly higher than nearly all other countries. As of 2018, Utah had a total jail and prison population of around 13,000 people with incarceration rates of more than 400 inmates per 100,000 population. By comparison, Canada had an incarceration rate of 114 inmates per 100,000; the incarceration rate in France was 102 inmates per 100,000; Italy had an incarceration rate of 96 inmates per 100,000; and the United Kingdom had an incarceration rate of 139 inmates per 100,000 population.

Policy Rationale for Incarceration

During the 1960’s there was a growing opinion that individuals, not social conditions, were responsible for criminal activity. Politicians began arguing this theory, and thus, began the war on crime. President Richard Nixon said that the “solution to the crime problem is not the quadrupling of funds for any government war on poverty, but more convictions.” 

By the 1980’s the thought was to get “tough on crime.” Policy makers believed the best way to fight crime, especially drug use, and keep the public safe was to lock offenders up and throw away the key. The idea was that extreme punishment would act as a deterrent. Congress and states began to pass measures that lead to the explosive growth in the number of people incarcerated with mandatory minimum sentencing policies, harsher sentences, cutbacks in parole releases, and a historic rise in the use of life sentences. Prison had become the go-to punishment when someone broke the law.

The mission statement of one Utah law enforcement agency states that they “provide community protection through incarceration of offenders.” But, is incarceration really the answer? 

Research has shown that for offenders of lower-level, non-violent crimes, in particular drug offenses, or youthful offenses, incarceration is ineffective, very costly and counterproductive.

Changing Views

In the last decade or so, views and opinions have shifted to the thought that crime is often the result of a lack of opportunity or environment. The focus has shifted onto addressing underlying issues of the offense, treatment, reintegration and prevention, saving prison for only those convicted of the most serious offenses. 

In December 2018, the federal government enacted the First Step Act, which stands for “Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person.” The goal of the act is to transform prisons into safe and effective rehabilitative facilities, “give deserving offenders the opportunity to get a shortened sentence for positive behavior and job training, and giving judges and juries the power that the Constitution intended to grant them in sentencing.”


It is easy for politicians to tout “tough on crime” positions. What is more difficult is finding the political courage to take positions that will actually be effective both in protecting our communities and rehabilitating individuals who have committed crimes. It is the latter positions that provide the greater benefit both to society and individuals.