enter image description here

This surge seems to only have stabilized in the last decade and spans roughly 1980–2005. What is its cause? Even when accounting for population growth, the graph does not look much different.

enter image description here

(Image source: Wikipedia – United States incarceration rate)

  • Looking through the answers I'd expect to see a reference to Plea bargaining, which matches this timeline and represents the vast majority of convictions. I imagine a system that punishes and dissuades seeking a fair trial, gives prosecutors an easy alternative to dropping weak cases, and increases judicial 'efficiency' would not be insignificant here. Don't really want to answer, but it seems like a critical factor is missing here.
    – Nathan
    Commented Jul 23, 2018 at 13:36

7 Answers 7


According to Trends in U.S. Corrections (pdf), the increase in the prison and jail populations relates primarily to

Changes in sentencing law and policy, not changes in crime rates,

The main increases have been for drug offenses and violent crimes, the latter constituting the largest group in state prisons. These increases have come about primarily (but not only) because of new policies on drug offences and harsher penalties for violent crimes. Thus, more prisoners are incarcerated for longer periods of time.

Sentencing policies of the War on Drugs era resulted in dramatic growth in incarceration for drug offenses. Since its official beginning in the 1980s, the number of Americans incarcerated for drug offenses has skyrocketed from 40,900 in 1980 to 450,345 in 2016. Furthermore, harsh sentencing laws such as mandatory minimums keep many people convicted of drug offenses in prison for longer periods of time: in 1986, people released after serving time for a federal drug offense had spent an average of 22 months in prison. By 2004, people convicted on federal drug offenses were expected to serve almost three times that length: 62 months in prison.

There has also been a nine-fold increase since 1980 in drug offenders in state prisons. At the federal level, two-thirds of all inmates in 1997 were people convicted of drug offences, though this had declined to about a half by 2012. Overall, though, violent offenders make up the largest percentage of inmates.

Although the 'three strikes law' (criminal statutes that mandate increased sentences for repeat offenders, usually after three serious crimes) has been commonly cited as a reason for the dramatic increase in the number of people incarcerated, it's either not that simple or only a marginal factor in many states. First, the law did not come into effect until the period 1993-96, more than ten years after the rapid increase in the number of inmates began. Second, almost half of US states do not have this law and, among those that do, only California applies it to a broad range of crimes. Third, many states already had habitual offender statutes before 'three strikes'; it was these statutes that were (and are) being used in many states. It is also noticeable that, between 1977 and 1997, the years when the percentage increase in the rates of incarceration reached double figures were all before 1993 (1980-81, 1981-82 and 1988-89).

  • 10
    Things I'd like to see 'in' there: moral panic, politics of fear, conservative backlash, privatisation of prisons, and racism. Commented Jul 19, 2018 at 23:10
  • 29
    @LangLangC I wouldn't disagree with you but I wouldn't want to turn this into a politicized post (hence I'll confine opinions to comments). Here's one: I think the use of private prisons is indefensible and opens up huge areas of conflict between state responsibility and private profit. Scary. There's also a massive inability of politicians of almost all parties in the US and the UK (at least) to deal with causes - unfortunately, "throw 'em jail" generally goes down well with electorates so that's what we get. Commented Jul 20, 2018 at 0:14
  • 6
    @HopelessN00b The existence of people who can profit off of incarceration means that there are people with a vested interest in causing more of it. How much that happens is debatable (here's one report), but Cash for Kids was a particularly blatant example. Lobbyists for bail bondsmen oppose bail reform. Still, it's not an exclusively private phenomenon, of course, law enforcement/prison guard unions also lobby for tougher laws. Commented Jul 20, 2018 at 2:38
  • 3
    I’m surprised “three strikes” laws don’t seem to be part of this answer. They became popular in the ‘90s. Commented Jul 20, 2018 at 2:45
  • 4
    @HopelessN00b Private prisons are far from the only factor, but they go together with the politicians. Prison lobbyists (both public and private sector) are likely to support candidates who run on "tough on crime" positions. And they may support such policies directly: the California prison guard's union (public sector, not private) has spent funds to campaign for the "three strikes" initiative and against reform ballot measures that would reduce incarceration rates. Commented Jul 20, 2018 at 3:04

Equally short as well as probably controversial answer: the War on Drugs, institutionalised racism, an increasingly intoxicating political climate rife with taboos based on moral panic, politics of fear, a general conservative backlash, as well as the privatisation of prisons can account for these numbers. Distilling all these effects piling up onto another into one reason: That makes it a political decision, however irrational or cruel it was.

By the mid-1980s, a few penologists, I among them, began to speculate that what had by that time become a 15-year prison population run-up was a trend that had to be nearing an end. We were alarmed at a prison population growth spinning out of control, and because we could find no rational explanation for the growth, unprecedented at that time, we came to the conclusion it was a politically spawned spurt that had about run its course. If you had told us then that the growth in imprisonment numbers was not even half finished, we would have been horrified at the prospect. A generation ago, nobody could have foreseen what was about to take place in U.S. penal policy for the next 35 years. What would have appalled us then to contemplate should appall us now to experience.
Todd R. Clear: "Imprisoning Communities. How Mass Incarceration Makes Disadvantaged Neighborhoods Worse", Oxford University Press: Oxford, New York, 2007.

The longer version

This increase is unrelated in its proportions to any increase in criminal activity that is punished with incarceration.

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 Wikipedia page on the causes cites Jeremy Travis: "The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences. National Research Council, 2014, p. 40 with just a few factors: –Increased sentencing laws – Economic and age contributions – Drug sentencing laws – Racialization – Prison privatization – Editorial policies of major media – Citizenship statistics

That is quite a tough nut to crack. How is are these factors explainable? One side prefers the simpler explanations:

Criminologists and legal experts here and abroad point to a tangle of factors to explain America’s extraordinary incarceration rate: higher levels of violent crime, harsher sentencing laws, a legacy of racial turmoil, a special fervor in combating illegal drugs, the American temperament, and the lack of a social safety net. Even democracy plays a role, as judges — many of whom are elected, another American anomaly — yield to populist demands for tough justice.
Mr. Whitman, who has studied Tocqueville’s work on American penitentiaries, was asked what accounted for America’s booming prison population.

“Unfortunately, a lot of the answer is democracy — just what Tocqueville was talking about,” he said. “We have a highly politicized criminal justice system.”

Adam Liptak: "Inmate Count in U.S. Dwarfs Other Nations’", Ney York Times, April 23, 2008.

So, one of the most dominant explanations is that the majority of the electorate actually wants to see people in prison. That may not be overly rational, but it is a choice, even if many involved in this process did not see and still do not see any choice in that matter. Whether that is either an appropriate description or a reasonable approach to the problem of crime will remain in the debate for quite some time.

“The way prisons are run and their inmates treated gives a faithful picture of a society, especially of the ideas and methods of those who dominate that society. Prisons indicate the distance to which government and social conscience have come in their concern and respect for the human being.” (Milovan Djilas, cited from Gottschalk 2006)

There are basically a few fundamentally different perspectives to look at this problem – of either crime or incarceration: cause and effect, stimulus and response, intervention and result, intent, incentives and unintended consequences, spurious correlations and ideology.

A simple timeline (if you prefer charts):

1971 Nixon declares War on Drugs
1973 New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller enacts toughest drug laws in the nation, starts Mandatory sentencing
1973 Nixon creates DEA
1980 CNN goes live
1982 Reagan intensifies War on Drugs
1983 Corrections Corporation of America founded
1984 privatisation of prisons
1984 Sentencing Reform act (minimum sentencing) truth-in-sentencing
1986 Anti-Drug-Abuse act
1993 3-strikes rule first in Washington (Initiative 593, life without parole for 3rd time offenders)
1994 3-strikes-rule in California, toughest and most often used
1994 Clinton's Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act
1996 Clinton's welfare reform decreases chances for formerly convicted drug offenders

There are just no scientific studies to show that that "tough on crime" reduces crime, it's either uncorrelated or even in an inverse relationship. But there are numerous studies that show that "tough on crime" is a prerequisite for candidates to not reduce votes in elections. Voters demand irrational politics.

The TV station is just a symbol here. It is not the station itself, but the trend to more news, less information, distorted views of reality and consequently fear and mass-hysteria about crime. There are numerous scociological and psychological factors that indicate that the sensationalist sex&crime reporting continues or even intensifies, while the rate of crime, and violent crime especially continue to drop. The battle for a reduction of lead in paint and gas seems to better explain dropping crime rates than toughening of laws and sentences. But the electing public does know neither that crime rates drop nor that laws or just a small factor for prevention. And many just do not care as they opt for a revenge punishment in every case.

When progressivism’s promise of a science and government cure to the crime problem failed to materialize, society was stripped of all hope and expectations. As a result, frustration, rather than reason, determined crime control policy. Tucked away in current formulations [of crime control policy] is evidence of the resignation and confusion that presumably typifies modern society.
William Lyons and Stuart Scheingold state that “the anxieties associ- ated with unwelcome social, economic, and cultural transformations generate anger, and punishment becomes a vehicle for expressing that anger.”5 Katherine Beckett maintains that the pro-prison movement served as a channel to express the diffuse anxieties associated with the breakdown of gender and racial hierarchies: “Economic pressures, anxiety about social change, and a pervasive sense of insecurity clearly engender a great deal of frustration, and the scapegoating of the underclass has been a relatively successful way of tapping and channeling these sentiments.”6 This scapegoating took the form of irrational demands for more severe sentencing.
Bert Useem & Anne Morrison Piehl: "Prison State The Challenge of Mass Incarceration", Chapter Two: "Causes of the Prison Buildup", Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, New York, 2008.

When trying to analyse this with a more comprehensive outlook, things get complicated in the details, but clear in the numbers, with prominent reasons hard to deny, but little perspective on how that inevitability came to be inevitable, or solvable:

State and federal incarceration rates grew by over 200 percent between 1980 and 1996. The dominant factor is drug offending, which grew by ten times, followed by assault and sexual assault. The growth can be partitioned among four stages: offending rates; arrests per offense; commitments to prison per arrest; and time served in prison, including time served on parole recommitments. The growth in incarceration for drugs is driven most strongly by growth in arrest rates, then by commitments per arrest; there is some increase in time served, but only in the federal system. For other offenses, there are no changes in arrests per reported offense and a net decline in offending rates. Over the full period, the growth in state incarceration for nondrug offenses is attributable entirely to sentencing increases: 42 percent to commitments per arrest and 58 percent to time-served increases. Recently, new court commitments and parole violations have flattened out; the dominant contributor to current growth for all the offenses examined is time served. Incarceration rates rose faster for women (364 percent) and minorities (184 percent for African Americans and 235 percent for Hispanics) than for men (195 percent) and non-Hispanic whites (164 percent).

All of these considerations inherently involve the question of the value received by the public as a result of current incarceration rates. It might have been reasonable to expect crime to have declined as a result of the quadrupling of the incarceration rate (Blumstein 1995c), but no such connection has been displayed. There certainly have been attempts to link the decline in crime during the 1990s to the growth in the prison population,"0 but any such argument must also explain why crime rates increased in the 1970s and the late 1980s while prison populations grew at the same rate as they did in the 1990s.
Of course, so complex an issue as the relationship between crime and punishment cannot be addressed through so simplistic an analysis as a negative correlation between the two very aggregated time series of crime rates and incarceration rates. That has been attempted, often with significant manipulation, to make a rhetorical point.
The aggregation of the two time series ignores the fact that very different factors could be affecting each one, thereby making the correlation more spurious than causal. For example, as the evidence in this essay makes clear, the growth in incarceration rate has been very strongly affected by drug enforcement policy, but drug offending does not enter into any of the measures of crime rates. Discerning the relationship between sanctioning policy and crime rates is the focus of considerable research in the areas of deterrence and incapacitation, requiring careful measurement and control for the many factors other thaincarceration that affect crime rates (Blumstein, Cohen, and Nagin 1978; Cook 1980; Nagin 1998). Furthermore, in order to establish sensible policy, benefits obtained from shifts up or down in sanctioning policy must be examined. Calling for particular attention is the massive incarceration of drug offenders, the largest group in prison. Incarceration of even three hundred thousand drug offenders does little to reduce drug sales through deterrence or incapacitation as long as the drug market can simply recruit replacements for those scared out of the business or locked away in prison (Bourgois 1989; Reuter, MacCoun, and Murphy 1990). But the analysis cannot stop there. To the extent that some of those drug offenders would have been committing other crimes on the street that are not replaced, such as interpersonal violence, their imprisonment could be contributing to the aggregate incapacitative effect of incarceration. It is also possible that crime rates did not decrease during the 1980s while prison populations soared because the nation's level of criminality (as measured by the number of active offenders or their rate of committing crimes) would otherwise have increased during this period. If that were the case, then the growing incarceration may have kept the crime rate from ballooning dramatically. Alternatively, it could be that incarceration is far less effective than the public thinks it is or than we would all like it to be for the considerable investment it requires. People who spend time in prison have considerable difficulty functioning in the legitimate job market when they come out (Freeman 1994, 1996). These difficulties, combined with the criminal skills they develop and the connections they make while in prison, may increase the likelihood that they persist in criminal careers.
Knowledge to address these questions responsibly, especially in deal- ing with drug offenders, still remains unavailable. As the nation's expenditures for incarceration increases from the current level of nearly $25 billion per year, the cost of that ignorance will continue to grow. We need to know the benefits of incarceration in terms of the incapacitation and deterrence of crime. We need to find better guidance for focusing incarceration on those offenses and those offenders that represent the most serious threats and for whom incarceration will achieve the greatest crime control benefits. And we have to weigh these benefits against the number of lives disrupted (now totaling more than 1.7 million individuals in America's prisons and jails) and the families and communities-especially minority communities-disrupted by large numbers of individuals being extracted and kept in prison. Better understanding of these issues is crucial for the development of informed policy.
Alfred Blumstein & Allen J. Beck: "Population Growth in U.S. Prisons, 1980-1996", 26 Crime. & Just. 17, 1999.

The United States presents a fundamental challenge to Durkheim’s claim that punishment will grow milder as societies modernize. While continental Europe has been moving in a milder direction by fits and starts, the United States certainly has not. David Garland likens the infliction of punishment by the state on its citizens to “a civil war in miniature.” If this is so, then the United States is currently engaged in a massive war with itself.
With so many millions somehow enmeshed in the criminal justice system, the penal policies of the United States have a certain taken-for- granted quality. Just as it seemed unimaginable thirty years ago that the United States would be imprisoning its people at such unprecedented rates, today it seems almost unimaginable that the country will veer off in a new direction and begin to empty and board up its prisons. Yet as Mathiesen reminds us, “major repressive systems have succeeded in looking extremely stable almost until the day they have collapsed.”
Marie Gottschalk: "The Prison and the Gallows. The Politics of Mass Incarceration in America", Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, New York, 2006.

Per popular demand: The perverse incentives of private prisons, Economist 2010

Moreover, contractors have every incentive to make themselves seem necessary. It is well-known that public prison employee unions constitute a powerful constituency for tough sentencing policies that lead to larger prison populations requiring additional prisons and personnel. The great hazard of contracting out incarceration "services" is that private firms may well turn out to be even more efficient and effective than unions in lobbying for policies that would increase prison populations.

One objective a humane crime punishment system should have is the rehabilitation of inmates, that return as reformed members into society. The incentives for private prisons are maximising profit and that means a revolving door is financially welcome effect of doing much less to prevent recidivism of released prisoners. Among other things this desire for "repeat customers" is compounded with ever increasing demands fro harder, longer sentences. This effect is the exact diametrical opposite to the goal of reducing crime. Private prisons increase crime. Privatisation of prisons was a crime in itself.

From Megan Mumford et al.: "The economics of private prisons" Brookings, 2016 (longer PDF):
The correctional system aims to protect the public by deterring crime and removing and rehabilitating those who commit it. Traditionally, the government has funded and operated correctional facilities, but some states and the federal government have chosen to contract with private companies, potentially saving money or increasing quality.
In addition, there may be differences in the effectiveness of public and private systems in promoting rehabilitation and minimizing recidivism. These differences may arise due to the incentives provided in private prison contracts, which pay on the basis of the number of beds utilized and typically contain no incentives to produce desirable outcomes such as low recidivism rates. The 2016 Nobel prize-winner in Economics, Oliver Hart, and coauthors explained that prison contracts tend to induce the wrong incentives by focusing on specific tasks such as accreditation requirements and hours of staff training rather than outcomes, and noted the failure of most contracts to address excessive use of force and quality of personnel in particular.

  • 1
    This details what societal trends influenced the changes in policy which led to the surge in incarceration rates in the '90s. It is informative, but not an answer to the actual question. Commented Jul 20, 2018 at 14:03
  • 8
    You blame, among other things, institutionalized racism and privatization of prisons. I admit that I didn't read your rather long answer very closely but I didn't notice any justification of the privatization claim. And was institutionalized racism increasing in the US in the 1990s? It seems to have been generally decreasing, from e.g. segregation to e.g. having a black president. Commented Jul 20, 2018 at 14:13
  • 2
    @DavidRicherby - I went over this exact topic in my answer. Based on the comments, I'm guessing LLC isn't going to be real anxious to further lengthen an already fairly long answer to go into that in detail, and you won't be real excited about reading all that extra text if he does, so why not pop on down and see if I answered your comment?
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jul 20, 2018 at 19:15

This is part of the long narrative of the USA's poor race relations.

The last of the legal segregation barriers came down in the early 70's with Fair Housing act and Swann vs. Charolette. This resulted in two big changes. The first was the completion of white flight, where white families who could afford cars left the cities to live together in the surrounding nearly all-white suburbs. The second was a push to use the court systems to make up the difference.

There was nothing particularly new about using the court system this way. Prisoner chain gangs started appearing in the South soon after slavery ended, and of course a feature of this system was a biased criminal justice system that ensured a supply of black prisoners. Courts elsewhere in the country may not have been quite that blatant about it, but they certainly weren't significantly more fair. Even today by about any measure you pick people of color are arrested more often than whites for the same crimes, and are more likely to be convicted and given longer sentences on the other end.

So while the old legal pillars of American white supremacy had been torn down, there was still this implicitly biased legal system. What if we turned the knob on that system up to 11? This is what happened in the late 1970's and '80s.

Starting in the early 70's immediately after desegregation, there was a blizzard of "crime porn" media produced, depicting the new American inner cities as lawless wastelands, under the thumb of roving bands of young (mostly black) criminals. Usually the hero was depicted as a white guy who ignores the technicalities of the laws to kill these evil youths. The Death Wish and Dirty Harry series of movies are the prototypes here. To be fair there was an upsurge in crime during this period. Today it is mostly explained by the large baby boom generation entering the age period where most crimes are committed*, but of course poorer areas were hit hardest, and the inner cities were now poor.

This was the perfect setup to building support for beefing up the entire criminal justice system. It got to the point in the 1980's where being "tough on crime" was a requirement for anyone seeking political office. Under those conditions, it was just not politically possible to even take a skeptical position on any measure increasing sentences or better funding enforcement. The voters were demanding it, so that's what they got.

The result was a series of legislation making sentences far longer, and a ballooning of the prison population.

* - Other plausible but less well accepted factors I've seen argued for are widespread lead poisoning before it was controlled in the early 70's, and lack of access to abortion services.

  • 1
    Excellent. I already feared my answer's length ballooning as well. Not that it didn't already. Do you want to spell out the institutionalised racism topic a bit more? Commented Jul 20, 2018 at 14:46
  • 2
    @LangLangC Thank you. Your answer was almost good enough that I didn't answer (and probably went into that aspect more than adequately). Just didn't get enough into the underlying history for my tastes. Too many trees, not enough forest. :-)
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jul 20, 2018 at 17:31
  • 1
    For an alternative view, see thefederalist.com/2014/07/17/is-the-war-on-drugs-racist Many of the original sponsors of the harsh punishments for crack cocaine were black legislators and clergy. This had a disparate impact on the African American community, but its origin was not racist. The law of unintended consequences. Commented Jul 20, 2018 at 20:09
  • 1
    It's a bit hard to see how the narrative presented in this answer connects to the actual numbers. According to this figure (source), there had been an increase in the ratio of black-to-white prisoners, but numerically, it's far too small to explain the figures given in the question.
    – Nat
    Commented Jul 22, 2018 at 16:24
  • @Nat - The narrative presented doesn't imply there should have been a huge change in ratios. As said in paragraphs 3-4, the ratio was already skewed enough, so all that was done was to turn volume knob on the existing racially skewed system up to 11.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jul 22, 2018 at 19:01

A factor (but not the leading factor) was the deinstitutionalization of mentally ill people. As they were discharged into a society that did not know what to do with them, some became violent and committed crimes and ended up in prison.


A second factor is increased illegal immigration. According to one estimate, "32% of Federal Inmates Are Aliens". See https://cis.org/Huennekens/32-Federal-Inmates-Are-Aliens

A third factor (cause or effect?) is the breakdown of marriages in the country. "39% of jail inmates lived in mother-only households". See https://thefatherlessgeneration.wordpress.com/statistics/

A fourth factor is that the government is getting real good at spying on its citizens. No source for that, just a hunch.

A fifth factor is an increase in the share of convicted offenders sent to prison (instead of being paroled or assigned community service):

For all major crime types, the likelihood that a person convicted of a crime will go to prison has risen sharply over the past 30 years. That’s especially true for drug offenses; the likelihood of being sent to prison for a drug-related crime rose by 350 percent between 1980 and 2010. The increase in the share of offenders sent to prison accounts for 44 to 49 percent of the long-term growth in state incarceration rates, the National Research Council study estimated.

A sixth factor is

the length of stay in prison has grown for all types of crimes. Between 1990 and 2009, the average time served rose by nearly 25 percent for property crimes and by roughly 37 percent for violent and drug crimes, the Pew Center on the States estimates. The increase in average sentences has contributed as much to the growth in incarceration rates as the rise in the share of offenders sent to prison, and possibly slightly more

See https://www.cbpp.org/blog/the-causes-and-costs-of-high-incarceration-rates for the above two factors.

My personal conviction is that the cause is the number of police, lawyers, judges and other law enforcement officials. In the absence of changes in efficientcy due to better technology, training and surveillance (which have occurred), the system has an average capacity at which crimes can be investigated, criminals caught, processed and incarcerated. So long as the clearing rate is well below the total number of crimes committed, the size of the bureacracy will generate prisoners at a constant rate, regardless of increases or decreases in the crime rate.

  • 1
    I think you really hit on it with the last paragraph. The current legal system in the USA is totally broken.
    – ed.hank
    Commented Jul 20, 2018 at 20:08
  • 1
    The system is not broken; it is FAD ("functioning as designed" in computer terms). It is designed to find criminals and lock them up as fast as it can, and it is doing that. It is up to us citizens to come up with a better design. Commented Jul 20, 2018 at 20:13
  • @PaulChernoch in a way it's broken. There are so many crimes on the book that nobody can ever know whether he's broken the law or not until he gets arrested for something he didn't even know was a crime. And with a voter base clamoring to turn every smallest inconvenience they might face into a crime it is only getting worse, as politicians proposing ever more ludicrous extensions to the criminal code can do so in the assurance it will bring them more votes than it costs.
    – jwenting
    Commented Jul 23, 2018 at 7:26

Many states passed three strikes and you're out laws where the third felony resulted in an automatic 25 year sentence or something close to that. Many states also passed longer mandatory minimum sentences for many crimes.

  • 4
    Aren't those from the 1994 timeframe, 16 years after the rapid increase begins? Commented Jul 20, 2018 at 0:27
  • Crime and parole were politicized in the 1988 election when Bush accused Dukakis or having a revolving door justice system, but the truth is that lot of states including Massachusetts were already locking up criminals for longer periods.
    – Alen
    Commented Jul 20, 2018 at 12:07
  • The perverted reality here is that there was revolving door effect developing. Only it was the exact opposite as what was claimed. Not in&out but out&in increased. Commented Jul 20, 2018 at 14:54

Ronald. Wilson. Reagan.


A resurgence in private prisons came in the wake of wide-spread privatization that took place during the 1980s. Prior to the 1980s, some aspects of prison management had been privatized (services), but overall management had still been held by federal and state authorities.


In combination with an overall privatization push by President Reagan, prison populations soared during the "war on drugs" and prison overcrowding and rising costs became a contentious political issue. Private business stepped in to offer a solution, and the era of privately run prisons began.

When there's a profit to be made in locking people up, more people will be locked up.

Clarification: I'm not saying that overcrowding led to privatization. Quite the opposite. Privatization led to an increased prison population. Private prisons each have a contract with the government stating that that government must keep X amount of prisoners incarcerated. With a private prison, the government HAS to keep shoveling people into that prison or be in breach of contract and pay a fine.

Solution: Harsher sentencing. (see 3 strikes and you're out)

Add to that, private prisons is a billion dollar industry, meaning it's an industry that has the money for lobbying in Washington which is going to result in stricter sentencing.

Also, if that isn't filling up prisons fast enough, the prison system gives kick-backs to judges to encourage them to keep the prisons bursting at the seams.


This is what I meant. If there's profit in keeping prisons full. That's why prisons stay full...even though there's no coinciding rise in crime.

Edit 2: Forgot to mention that private prisons also work as sweatshops. Lots of companies use prison labor, paying prisoners pennies on the dollar, increasing the prison's profit.


There's also a great documentary about all this on Netlix called The 13th.

  • 1
    That is a statement, not a question. Post it elsewhere.
    – Jos
    Commented Jul 20, 2018 at 9:33
  • 1
    You don't explain how privatizing prisons leads to more incarceration. Commented Jul 20, 2018 at 14:15
  • 5
    If privatization was instituted because of "overcrowding", then how can privatization be responsible for the surge it was instituted to help handle?
    – Jeutnarg
    Commented Jul 20, 2018 at 15:58
  • 1
    @Jeutnarg - That's my chief issue here. I think its probably true that this has been an aggravating factor (and there's a case to be made that Reagan is largely responsible). I often worry that some people might be lighting on this as the one-and-only cause because they don't want to talk about (or even admit the existence of) uncomfortable topics like racism.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jul 20, 2018 at 18:02
  • 2
    @TroyFrazier your answer is simply a political rant against Reagan and his policies, nothing more or less.
    – jwenting
    Commented Jul 23, 2018 at 7:27

Question: Why was there a surge in the US incarceration rate during the 1990s?

Murder rates, and violent crimes increased in the late 1980's and early 1990's.

  • Starting in 1987, the homicide rate in the US was increasing by 5% each year, peaking in 1991 with 9.8 deaths per every 100,000 people. BBC
  • From 1989 - 1992 the murder rate in the United States grew 15%. United States Crime Rates 1960 - 2016 (*)
  • "The homicide rate among black men from the ages of 15 to 24 rose by two-thirds in the five years through 1988, the Federal Centers for Disease Control" reported in 1990. New York Times

New York Times 1990
"In some areas of the country it is now more likely for a black male between his 15th and 25th birthday to die from homicide than it was for a United States soldier to be killed on a tour of duty in Vietnam," said Dr. Froehlke, an epidemiologist with (the Center for Disease Control).

In response to public outcry President Clinton passed the bipartison 1994 Crime Bill including:

  • Federal money to hire 100,000 new local police officers
  • Incentivized States to get tough on crime pledging Federal money to pay for such efforts.
  • Created a "three strikes" mandatory life sentence for repeat offenders
  • $9.7bn in funding for new prisons
  • an expansion of death penalty-eligible offenses
  • Effectively doubled the number of people in federal prisons in two decades following 1994.

The net effect of all this legislation was a dramatic increase in the number of people in prison for the late 1990's and early 21st century. People still debate this, but adding 100,000 new police officers, dramatically increasing sentencing times, federal financing the costs of tougher state and local laws, and committing 9.7 billion to constructing new prisons all lead up to one thing. You get more prisoners.

From the mid 1990's to the end of the 1990's there was a a dramatic decrease in the US violent crime and murder rates.

Unrelated to the answer but I think it's important to note, a consensus of experts today disassociate the drop in crime rates with the 1994 Clinton sponsored Crime bill. The drop in crime rates began to occur before the money and policies of the 1994 bill went into effect. Experts credit a cyclical change in the country, not the 1994 crime bill with the reduction in the violent crime wave in the mid 1990s. Even after the crime rate fell, we continued to incarcerate a higher percentage of people and give them longer sentences; resulting in the largest percentage of our population in prison than any other country. Currently the United States houses half of all prisoners held in the entire world. Hillary Clinton who supported the bill in the 1990's apologized for it in her last Presidential run and said the bill went to far.

enter image description here

(*)Statistics calculated from United States Crime Rates 1960 - 2016
1989 - 21,500 murders 1991 - 24,700 murders = 3,200 / 21,500 = increase 15%

(**) 1994 - 24,530 murders, 1999 15,522 murders -9000 / 24,53= = decrease 37%


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.