According to the London-based International Centre for Prison Studies (ICPS), which is an arm of the University of London Law School Institute for Criminal Policy Research, the United State ranks 2nd in the world for the number of prisoners locked up per capita. Based on the latest statistics (2014), only the tiny Seychelles outranks the U.S. for the number of people locked up per capita and that is almost certainly a statistical quirk since the Seychelles has a population of less than 100,000, which is the benchmark per capita rate. So for all intents and purposes, the United States has more prisoners per capita (693 per 100,000 in population) than any country in the world. That’s way behind countries like Russia (445/100,000), Saudi Arabia (161/100,000), and China (118/100,000). Some may argue that those countries’ statistics are not transparent, but the ICPS maintains that it gathers the data monthly from reputable sources. Whether the data is entirely accurate or not, the United States clearly locks up more of its population than other country in the world.

So, what gives? Does the United States just produce more criminals? Is this due to the War on Drug? Is Law Enforcement more effective in the United States? Do federal and state laws impose harsher sentences than other countries? Is the criminal justice system broken in the United States?

These questions have been researched in depth and not surprisingly, different researchers come up with different answers. Many blame it on the so-called “War on Drugs” and indeed, the federal government released new guidelines in 2015 aimed at scaling back federal incarceration rates, which is expected to see the early release of 17,000 prisoners who were convicted on nonviolent drug offenses. But that is just a drop in the bucket. Between local jails, state and federal prisons, the United States incarcerates approximately 2.3 million people (according the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2014). While there might be something to the theory that the War on Drugs has contributed to the prison population, a deeper look at the numbers suggest that the War on Drugs is not entirely the answer. The War on Drugs really took off during the Regan years of the early 1980’s. Shortly thereafter, prison populations soared, but demographics might have had more of a role in that increase than the War on Drugs.

According to recent statistics, almost half of all federal prisoners are incarcerated on drug charges, while in the state prisons, drug offenders make up approximately 15 percent of the inmate population. Of the total prisoner population in the United States, the state prisons account for approximately for about 85 percent of all prisoners. Work through those numbers and you will see that the War on Drugs may have had some impact on our high prison population but it cannot be the answer to why our prison population is so high. According to the research, even if every person incarcerated on a drug conviction were released, both state and federal prisoners, the United States would still lead the world in incarceration rates.

Another theory suggests that the reason for the high incarceration rates in the U.S. can be attributed to overzealous prosecutors; others cite the privatization of our prisons; and other theories abound. Why the United States is an outlier when it comes to inmate population is certainly a complex question. In my next post, we’ll dig a little deeper.

William Weinberg is an experienced criminal defense attorney. If you have any questions regarding your criminal defense matter, please feel free to contact him to set up a confidential consultation without charge at or 949-474-8008.