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Fact Sheet Global Incarceration Rates, US NCCD, 2006

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November 2006

FACT SHEET
Research from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency

US Rates of Incarceration:
A Global Perspective
Christopher Hartney

In the past 30 years, the United States has come to rely on imprisonment as its response to all types of crime. Even minor violations of parole or probation often lead
to a return to prison. This has created a prison system of unprecedented size in this
country.
The US has less than
5% of the world’s
population but over
23% of the world’s
incarcerated people.

•
•
•
•
•

The US incarcerates the largest number of people in the world.
The incarceration rate in the US is four times the world average.
Some individual US states imprison up to six times as many people as do
nations of comparable population.
The US imprisons the most women in the world.
Crime rates do not account for incarceration rates.

Local and state facilities across the country are overcrowded, exacerbate prisoner
health problems, risk the safety of both staff and prisoners, are in poor repair, and
strain taxpayers. The nationwide bill for incarceration is conservatively estimated
at $42 billion annually (see AOUSC, May, 2004). Many prison and jail systems have
been sued for failure to meet minimum requirements for health and safety. Prisoner
rehabilitation and reentry services are inadequately funded.
This fact sheet makes simple side-by-side comparisons of the most reliable and current statistics from around the world to illuminate
the extreme use of incarceration in the US. Explaining the reasons for this heavy reliance on imprisonment is outside the scope of this
publication. Variations in legal definitions and statistical methods create limitations on the cross-national comparability of criminal justice
data. Yet such comparisons remain powerful tools for gaining the perspective necessary to instigate review and reform. Wherever
possible, incarceration data includes local, state, and national facilities, and includes sentenced, pre-trial, and remanded prisoners.

2

Research from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency

November 2006

The US incarcerates the largest number of people in the world.
Comparative International Incarceration Rates

Compared to the world’s other
most populous countries, the
2.2 million people currently
incarcerated in the US is 153%
higher than Russia, 505% higher
than Brazil, 550% higher than
India, and over 2,000% higher
than Indonesia, Bangladesh, or
Nigeria (ICPS, 2006).

The US rate of incarceration
is the highest in the world.
The US incarcerates at a rate
4 to 7 times higher than other
western nations such as the
United Kingdom, France, Italy,
and Germany and up to 32
times higher than nations with
the lowest rates such as Nepal,
Nigeria, and India.

Nepal

26

Nigeria

30

India

31
45

Indonesia
Pakistan

57

Iraq

60

Japan

62

Venezuela

74

Sweden

78

Ireland

78

Egypt

87

France

88

Turkey

91

Germany

95

South Korea

97

Italy

102

Vietnam

105

Canada

107

Philippines

108
118

China

126

Australia

132

Saudi Arabia

139

Zimbabwe
Spain

145

United Kingdom

145

Argentina

148

Colombia

152
168

Lebanon

184

Uzbekistan
Brazil

191

Mexico

196

Iran

206

Libya

207

Israel

209
228

Poland

250

United Arab Emirates

Rates, as opposed to actual prison
population, allow for comparisons
across time as populations change
or across nations with different
populations. Rates are calculated
by dividing the prison population
by the general population and
multiplying by 100,000.

Thailand

257

Taiwan

259

South Africa

335

Botswana

339
350

Singapore

360

Ukraine

487

Cuba

607

Russian Federation

738

United States of America

0

100

200
300
400
500
600
700
Incarceration Rate (per 100,000 population)

800

November 2006

Research from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency

3

Incarceration rates in the US are four times the world average.*

The rate of incarceration of only
sentenced prisoners
in China is onefourth the rate for
sentenced prisoners
in state or federal
facilities in the US.
(Walmsley, 2005)

738

Rate in the United States.

166

Average rate worldwide.

135

Average rate among European Union member states.

96

Average rate of the Group of Seven: Japan, Germany,
United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Canada (US excluded).

152

Rate in Rwanda, where nearly 80% (53,000) of the prison inmates are being
held for crimes relating to the 1994 genocide.

133

Average rate in Iran and Iraq.

100

Average rate of incarceration among nations noted by Amnesty International
as having some of the most urgent human rights abuse issues (Uzbekistan,
Iraq, Myanmar, and Sudan) (Human Rights Watch, 2006).

823

Estimated rate in the feared GULAG of the Soviet Union in 1950 (Getty,
Rittersporn, & Zemskov, 1993; Andreev, et al., 1993).
* (ICPS, 2006).

US rates are in large part driven by disproportionate minority incarceration.
In the US, African Americans are over six times as likely to be incarcerated as
whites; Latinos over twice as likely. If the US enacted the reforms necessary to reduce its disproportionate minority confinement by just 50%, the incarceration rate
would drop to approximately 491 and put the US fifth in the world instead of first
(see Harrison & Beck, 2006 and US Census Bureau, 2006a).

4

Research from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency

November 2006

Some US states imprison six times as many people as do nations
of comparable population.
Current Prison Populations in Example States vs. Countries of Similar Size

New York

92,769

Australia

25,353

Massachusetts

22,778

Hong Kong

11,521

Illinois

64,735

Ecuador

12,251

Florida

148,521

Sri Lanka

23,163

California

246,317

Poland

86,820

Texas

223,195

Malaysia

35,644
0

50,000

100,000

150,000

200,000

250,000

Prison Population

Sources: US Census Bureau, 2005a; US Census Bureau, 2005b; Harrison and Beck, 2006; ICPS, 2006.

If the rest of the world followed the US lead on incarceration policies and
practices, the total number incarcerated worldwide would increase fivefold
from 9.2 million to 47.6 million.

November 2006

Research from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency

5

The US imprisons the most women in the world.
The International Centre for Prison Studies has produced a report tabulating the
number of women in prisons around the world (Walmsley, 2006). The following data
is derived from that report and from international US Census figures with additional
sources as noted (US Census Bureau, 2006b).
The US has 183,400 women in prison—at least 3 times more than any other nation.
Apart from the US, the nations that incarcerate the most women are Russia (55,400),
Thailand (28,450), India (13,350), Ukraine (11,830), and Brazil (11,000). In fact, the
US incarcerates more women by over 60,000 than the rest of these nations combined.
The incarceration rate of women is higher in the US than other representative nations—123 per 100,000 of the US female population. Next is Thailand, 88; Russia, 73; England and Wales, 17; South Africa, 14; France, 6; and India, 3 (Office for
National Statistics, 2006; Her Majesty’s Prison Service, 2006).

Statistics available from China include only the number of sentenced prisoners
(not pre-trial or otherwise detained prisoners) and are thus difficult to compare to
other international statistics. In 2003, the latest year data is available for China, the
number of women sentenced to prison in China was 71,280, while the number of
women sentenced to a year or more in prison in the US was 92,785. The rate of
imprisonment of women in China is approximately one-fifth that of the US.
(Walmsley, 2006; Harrison & Beck, 2004).

Crime rates do not account for incarceration rates.
For some crimes, the US has higher crime rates than other countries, but not at levels
that explain the high rates—and costs—of its current use of incarceration. Some
might assume that high US incarceration rates follow this country’s high crime rates.
The following graphs illustrate that, even controlling for crime categories that are
defined in the most consistent ways internationally, the US still locks up more people
per incident than any other nation. The one exception is incarceration for robbery in
Russia.

Research from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency

November 2006

The robbery and homicide rates are used as a proxy of general crime rate. Unlike
most crime, robbery and homicide are defined in similar ways by most nations and
are therefore most accurate for comparisons.

Prisoners Per Robbery in Selected Nations, 2001
6
5.1

Prisoners per Robbery

5

4.6

4

3
2.3
1.9

2
1.2

1.2

1

0.8
0.6
0.4

0

Australia

Canada

England
& Wales

France

Germany

Lithuania

Poland

Russia

U.S.A.

Prisoners Per Homicide in Selected Nations, 2001
140
123

120
103

Prisoners per Homicide

6

100
81

80

75
66
57

60

45

40
29
25

20
0

Australia

Canada

England
& Wales

Source: Barclay & Tavares, 2003.

France

Germany

Lithuania

Poland

Russia

U.S.A.

November 2006

Research from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency

7

“In the most sophisticated analysis of [rising US incarceration rates], criminologists Alfred Blumstein and Allen Beck examined the near-tripling of the
prison population during the period 1980-1996 and concluded that changes
in crime explained only 12% of the prison rise, while changes in sentencing
policy accounted for 88% of the increase.”
(Mauer, 2003)

Summary
The causes for the overreliance on imprisonment in the US are multifold. Crime rates, occaional spikes in certain
types of crime (both actual and perceived), media coverage of the worst cases, public perceptions, political opportunism, and misdirected laws, policies, and practices certainly play roles. The findings reported in this fact sheet suggest that it is time for a serious review of US incarcareration policies and practices. Over a quarter of a century ago,
NCCD president Milton Rector wrote, “The rate of imprisonment in the United States, which takes pride....in its
protection of liberty and freedom, is considerably higher than the rate in any other industrialized nation. To ignore
it is to condone the flagrant waste of money and lives and the crime-producing effects of needless imprisonent; to
allow it to continue would be irresponsible support of....leaders....who perpetuate the myth that more imprisonment
means better protection of the public.”

In addition to US government and other sources, this fact sheet reports statistics compiled in the most definitive
report of international incarceration, produced by Roy Walmsley, MA, MPhil, at the International Centre for Prison
Studies at King’s College London, the World Prison Population List (Walmsley, 2005) and its online version, the
World Prison Brief (ICPS, 2006), to whom we are indebted for their work. The ICPS list includes every nation for
which incarceration statistics are available. The list is updated as new data becomes available; all figures reported
here were recorded 10/6/2006 unless specified otherwise.

8

Research from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency

References

November 2006

Administrative Office of the US Courts (May, 2004). Costs of Incarceration and Supervision. The Third
Branch: The Newsletter of the Federal Courts, 36(5). Washington, DC: Administrative Office of the
US Courts, Office of Public Affairs. Accessed http://www.uscourts.gov/ttb/may04ttb/costs/index.
html.
Andreev, E.M., et al. (1993). Naselineie Sovetskogo Souiza, 1922-1991. Moscow: Nauka.
Barclay, G., & Tavares, C. (2003). International Comparisons of Criminal Justice Statistics 2001. London:
Home Office, Research Development Statistics. Accessed 9/15/06 at http://www.homeoffice.gov.
uk/rds/pdfs2/hosb1203.pdf.
Getty, J.A., Rittersporn, G.T., & Zemskov, V.N. (1993). Victims of the Soviet Penal System in the Pre-war
Years: A First Approach on the Basis of Archival Evidence. American Historical Review, 98(4), 1048-49.
Harrison, P.M., & Beck, A.J. (2004). Prisoners in 2003. Washington, DC: US DOJ, Office of Justice
Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics. Accessed 10/25/2006 at http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/abstract/p03.htm.
Harrison, P.M., & Beck, A.J. (2006). Prison and Jail Inmates at Midyear 2005. Washington, DC: US DOJ,
Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Her Majesty’s Prison Service (2006). Prison Population and Accommodation Briefing for 24th June 2005. Accessed 10/25/2006 at http://www.hmprisonservice.gov.uk.
Human Rights Watch (2006). Urgent Situations: Joint Statement to the First Session of the Human Rights
Council. Accessed 10/03/06 at http://hrw.org/english/docs/2006/06/26/global14098_txt.htm.
International Centre for Prison Studies (2006). World Prison Brief (online version). London: University
of London, King’s College London, International Centre for Prison Studies. Accessed 10/06/2006 at
http://www.prisonstudies.org.
Mauer, M. (2003). Comparative International Rates of Incarceration: An Examination of Causes and Trends.
Washington, DC: The Sentencing Project.
Office for National Statistics (2006). Mid-2005 Population Estimates: England and Wales. Accessed
10/25/2006 at http://www.statistics.gov.uk.
US Census Bureau (2005a). Annual Estimates of Population for US and States, and for Puerto Rico: April 1,
2000 to July 1, 2005 (NST-EST2005-01). Population Division, US Census Bureau. December 22, 2005.
US Census Bureau (2005b). International Database: Countries Ranked by Population 2005. Population Division, US Census Bureau. Accessed 8/18/2006 at http://www.census.gov/cgi-bin/ipc/idbrank.pl.
US Census Bureau (2006a). Annual Estimates of Population by Sex, Race and Hispanic or Latino Origin for the
US: April 1, 2000 to July 1, 2005 (NST-EST2005-03). Population Division, US Census Bureau. May
10, 2006.
US Census Bureau (2006b). International Database. US Census Bureau, Population Division/International Programs Center. Accessed 10/25/2006 at http://www.census.gov/ipc/www/idbacc.html.
Walmsley, R. (2005). World Prison Population List (6th ed.). London: King’s College London, School of
Law, International Centre for Prison Studies. Accessed 9/14/2006 at http://www.prisonstudies.org.
Walmsley, R. (2006). World Female Imprisonment List. London: King’s College London, School of Law,
International Centre for Prison Studies. Accessed 9/14/2006 at http://www.prisonstudies.org

 

 

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