Incarceration Rates in the U.S.


The protection of society has to be visible and measurable for the public to see that it lives in a secure, crime-free environment. Different measures have been introduced to address this issue. Incarceration rates are sometimes named as one of them. In the U.S., incarceration rates are higher than in other developed countries with similar or higher crime rates (MacKenzie & Weiss, 2009). Researchers argue that this criterion is hardly related to reducing crime (MacKenzie & Weiss, 2009). In light of this, it becomes paramount to discuss the social implications of incarceration rates and their influence on crime rates.

Individual and Social Implications of High Incarceration Rates

In the discussion of social and individual implications, it is vital to review the connections between high incarceration rates and public safety. For almost a decade, the United States has been increasing its rates of conviction. According to Schmitt, Warner, and Gupta (2010), for 100,000 people there were 753 convicted prisoners. In comparison to Britain or Germany, this number is five-six times higher. An average person who sees the imprisonment statistics will probably think that the police have been fulfilling their duties and protecting civilians at the top of their capacity. They probably will not be wrong as the percentage of falsely convicted is rather low (Gross, O’Brien, Hu, & Kennedy, 2014). The logic behind this position is simple: the more real criminals are in jail, the fewer criminals are on the streets. This mindset may be right to some extent. After all, the prisoners return to society after they served their term. The number of people who undergo probation and are on parole is rather high. According to Wagner and Rabuy (2016), 3,7 million people are currently on probation, 2,3 million are imprisoned, and 800,000 are on parole. These data provide an opportunity for different interpretations.

On the one hand, in comparison with the total U.S. population, these numbers might not look so overwhelmingly high. 7 million people who are currently under the control of the U.S. justice system against 323 million makes the number less significant than if looked at in isolation. Only 2 percent of the population seems to have an ill connection to law enforcement, which, from one point of view, should not raise concern among the public. However, this is, to a certain extent, a matter of perspective. For instance, a person lives in a neighborhood comprised of 100 people. Given the statistics at hand, two of those 100 are potential criminals or have issues with the law. In this case, the incarceration rates and the work of law enforcement agencies may raise concern among people. Even more so, according to MacKenzie and Weiss (2009), while the U.S. houses 5% of the world’s population, it accounts for 25% of its imprisoned. Despite the fact that the 7 million people mentioned above are those who are ‘under the control of the justice system, most of those people live in the cities alongside law-abiding citizens.

In addition, those who are released from prisons and jails with more than 50% certainty are re-incarcerated for other crimes (Schmitt et al., 2010). If projected to the crime rate, out of 2,3 million people about 1,15 million crimes can be expected. The proportion may be different because there is a certain percentage of those who serve a life sentence. In these circumstances, a matter of public safety and security becomes dangerous. It appears that even the highest incarceration rates cannot defend people from crime. Also, the discussed statistics and scientific discoveries do not consider the crimes that are not registered and solved due to the negligence or oversight of the police. This situation allows drawing grim conclusions about the state of personal and social security. The present state of law enforcement does not seem to effectively protect individuals and society from crime but is only able to punish people responsible for it and detain them for a certain period of time before they are arrested again for other law-breaking activity.

The Research in the Sphere of Crime and Incarceration

The issue mentioned above was noticed by the researchers and studied in a variety of aspects. One of the popular directions in the investigation of other countries’ experiences. Many comparative analyses were conducted, and most of them note that there is a negative correlation between incarceration and crime rates. In Norway, for instance, it was found that decreasing incarceration did not raise a surge of criminal activity (MacKenzie & Weiss, 2009). Due to the high recidivism, penitentiary systems are reported to produce more criminals and, as a result, higher crime rates. It is low-to-middle incarceration rates that benefit the crime rate (Schmitt et al., 2010). Finland, for instance, that arrests six to seven times fewer people has twice as low homicide rates. The solution that this country employed was reducing prison terms in addition to sentencing many offenders to social works and correction programs (MacKenzie & Weiss, 2009). Depending on the success of the punishment choice for each standalone prisoner, this system proves to be rather effective. This decision not only reduces the economic burden of the state by decreasing the funds for penitentiary system maintenance but also enables the convicted to engage in socially useful labor.

Various experiments were conducted in many states that produced thought-provoking results. As such, the evidence-based practice of Finland was recently implemented in California. The state authorities undertook an effort to reduce the population of penitentiary facilities that included the practice of replacing prison sentences with jail sentences, and decreasing reliance on incarceration, placing emphasis on alternative means of punishment (Lofstrom & Raphael, 2016). However, the researchers note, that the effect of this measure on crime rates was low-to-modest. Despite that fact, the economic impact on the state was positive.

As opposed to incarceration, the increase of the police force size showed the greatest results and demonstrated the most effect on reducing the incidence of violent and property crimes saving more than 0.6 dollars of criminal damage for each dollar invested in the police (Lofstrom & Raphael, 2016).

The Society’s Contribution

There seems to be not much that an average person can do to affect the correlation of crime and incarceration rates because these factors are to a great extent dependent on the national and state policies and laws. However, in accordance with the research by Enns (2014), public opinion can significantly influence incarceration rates. Furthermore, had it not been for the public punitiveness, conviction rates were likely to be 20% less. These results demonstrate the power of every individual to affect the policies of the country. It is the duty of the people to contribute to the safety of their neighborhoods and cities. Other researchers such as Beckett, Gottschalk, Matthews, and others question or dismantle the theory of public punitiveness and argue that public opinion has no impact on incarceration rates or criminal justice policy.

Capital punishment, on the other hand, was adopted by many states when the national support for it was as high as 70 to 80 percent (Gallup, n.d.). This may be indirect proof of the impact the U.S. society had and on the policies concerning law enforcement. In addition, neighborhood watch and neighborly awareness practices that emerged with increasing social responsibility in public help reduce the rate of crime. Thus, according to Messner, Zhang, Zhang, and Gruner (2017) this practice helped substantially reduce the victimization of property in the area. By preventing crime, society seems to help reduce the incarceration rates.

Public Policies and Less Formal Responses

Stoll and Rafael believe that the main public policy that created the disproportionally high incarceration rates in the U.S. is the change in the United States Federal Sentencing Guidelines, which proposed longer terms for convicts (Paul, 2018). These guidelines unify the sentencing policy for serious crimes including Class A misdemeanors. Several amendments were made to the document increasing the minimum sentence for certain crimes. As a result, the flow of inmates decreased. While new people were sentenced to imprisonment, the majority of convicts were still incarcerated, which creates the statistics of today.

Mandatory minimum penalties also contribute to the overpopulation of prisons and jails, which requires states and the federal government to build new penitentiary facilities. Repeated offense or persistent offender laws of the states require a more severe punishment and longer sentences for habitual crimes. On the one hand, it is logical and morally justifiable. On the other, it seems to be pointless as incarceration for longer terms does not prevent or re-educate the criminal serving only as a temporary crime-prevention measure.

Truth in sentencing is another policy that aggravates the problem of incarceration and reduces its impact on crime. This law denied offenders the right to parole and sentence cuts for good behavior requiring them to serve most of their term. In conjunction with a mean increase in sentence length and other policies discussed here, it created the incarceration rates in the U.S. as they are.

As a less formal measure, one can name social control in the form of neighborhood watch and neighborhood self-organization. As a part of a social movement against crime, neighbors are encouraged to acquaint themselves with the people next door, help protect their property in exchange for the same attitude, and be able to warn the police. It serves both as the measure preventing crime and increasing incarceration as timely warning increases the chances of a criminal being arrested in the act with many eyewitnesses and sentenced to imprisonment.

Alternative Solution

High incarceration rates increase the number of criminals and place an additional burden on taxpayers. Therefore, they need to be decreased by methods other than the policies described above. As it was mentioned earlier, a substantial body of research supported the increase of police forces as a measure that would help reduce crime rates. However, this measure does not prevent conviction. Therefore, it should also be modified to retain the effect on crime and reduce the burden on the penitentiary system. The most logical solution that tackles both problems is a police preventive strategy. Such measure has been introduced in certain large urban areas such as New York.

Undercover police cars disguised as taxicabs or other vehicles patrolling the cities always ready to react to the violation of the law create a constant surveillance sensation and divert potential criminals from wrongdoing. Although the effectiveness of this measure has not yet received solid scientific proof, it seems to be a prominent tool for preventing crimes. It may help keep people out of jails and prisons by applying ‘psychological pressure’ and dismantling the sense of invincibility that some criminals may have. Ordinary people would also feel more secure knowing that police are always ready to protect them.

On the other hand, this approach is only a small-scale intervention that may not be effective. It also poses certain negative consequences such as the feeling of insecurity in those who are comfortable seeing undisguised police cars. Other than that, this solution in conjunction with other measures can contribute to unburdening the country’s penitentiary system and further lower crime rates.


All things considered, incarceration seems to be closely tied to crime rates. However, the nature of the relationship between the two is proved to be far from traditional beliefs. Despite the popular opinion that an increased conviction rate lowers crime rates, it is quite the opposite. Public policies and society have fuelled this misconception for several decades, which resulted in relatively low effectiveness and the high cost of the U.S. justice system. Measures directed at prevention with more emphasis on police action could be one of the solutions that could decrease crime rates and lower the burden on the penitentiary system.


Enns, P. K. (2014). The public’s increasing punitiveness and its influence on mass incarceration in the United States. American Journal of Political Science, 58(4), 857-872.

Gallup. (n.d.). Death penalty. Web.

Gross, S., O’Brien, B., Hu, C., & Kennedy, E. (2014). Rate of false conviction of criminal defendants who are sentenced to death. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(20), 7230-7235.

Lofstrom, M., & Raphael, S. (2016). Incarceration and crime: Evidence from California’s public safety realignment reform. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 664(1), 196-220.

MacKenzie, D. L., & Weiss, D. B. (2009). Other countries have successfully reduced incarceration rates without increasing crime: We can do it! Victims and Offenders, 4(4), 420-426.

Messner, S. F., Zhang, L., Zhang, S. X., & Gruner, C. P. (2017). Neighborhood crime control in a changing China: Tiao-Jie, Bang-Jiao, and neighborhood watches. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 54(4), 544-577.

Paul, S. (2018). Public policies, not crime rate, pack U.S. jails, researchers say. Web.

Schmitt, J., Warner, K., & Gupta, S. (2010). The high budgetary cost of incarceration. Web.

Wagner, P., & Rabuy, B. (2016). Mass incarceration: The whole pie 2016. Prison Policy Initiative, 14, 1-23.

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LawBirdie. "Incarceration Rates in the U.S." March 23, 2023.