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The Extraordinary Size of the US Prison Population

Learn Liberty’s latest video examines the U.S. prison population, which is estimated to be the largest among all developed nations. Daniel D’Amico, an Assistant Professor of Economics at Loyola University New Orleans, outlines the comparatively large degree of incarceration in the U.S., which may even be more extensive (as a total number and as a percentage of population) than it is in Russia and China. The costs, both economic and human, of this widespread incarceration are staggering. The level of incarceration is fiscally irresponsible and difficult to justify.

Professor D’Amico correctly points out that “the large and active role of our federal government” in criminal justice differentiates the U.S. from most other developed countries, which handle crime at the local level. It is worth mentioning that this expanded role only came about in the last 30 or so years. Historically, the federal government played only a small role in criminal justice, and never incarcerated more than approximately 24,000 people until the 1980s. Now, the federal prison population stands at approximately 218,000 inmates. Overall, the U.S.’s total incarcerated population (over 1.6 million) dwarfs that of its allies, such as the U.K. (~79,000), France (~57,000), or Canada (~35,000).

From the video:

“Perhaps the nickname ‘The Land of the Free, the Home of the Brave’ should be updated, although I suppose you need to be brave to endure the highest likelihood of incarceration the world has ever known. Prisons are not what we think about when we think of America, and they shouldn’t have to be. A free nation shouldn’t imprison so many people, and a fiscally responsible nation can’t afford to. With close to $40 billion a year in state correctional spending, the financial costs are obvious and staggering alone. But the human costs are often underappreciated; 1.6 million fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of American families are incarcerated. It’s time for people to realize that the criminal justice system in America is desperately in need of reform.”

The video, titled “US Prison Population: The Largest in the World,” can be viewed here.

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