Facts and Figures on Incarceration in America

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Over the last four decades, America’s prison population has increased dramatically. This tremendous growth disproportionately affects minorities, and has been exacerbated by the war on drugs. Mass incarceration has become a form of legalized discrimination — what activist and lawyer Michelle Alexander calls the “new Jim Crow” — that makes it more difficult for millions to participate in basic aspects of our democracy.

Below are some facts and figures on incarceration in America.

America has 5 percent of the world's population, but has 25 percent of the world's prison population.In the early 1970s, there were 250,000 inmates in the United States; today, there are 2,400,000 -- an increase of over 800 percent.The average cost of housing an inmate is between $20,000 and $30,000 a year. States spend over $50,000,000,000 a year on corrections.For every 2 white Americans incarcerated, 11 black Americans are incarcerated.Prison sentences of black men were nearly 20 percent longer than those of white men for similar crimes in recent years.If incarceration rates continue to grow at the pace they have since the 1970s, 1 of every 3 black American males born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime, as can 1 of every 6 Latino males and 1 of every 17 white males.Nearly 6,000,000 Americans are barred from voting for committing a felony, including 2,200,000 African Americans.

For further reading on mass incarceration in America, check out the American Civil Liberties Union’s infographic on the topic, The Sentencing Project’s report to the UN on racial disparities in the US justice system, its state-by-state map, the Washington Post’s editorial on state spending on corrections and Professor Heather Schoenfeld’s “Five things everyone should know about US incarceration.”

John Light is a reporter and producer for the Moyers team. His work has appeared at The Atlantic, Grist, Mother Jones, Salon, Slate, Vox and Al Jazeera, and has been broadcast on Public Radio International. He's a graduate of Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. You can follow him on Twitter at @LightTweeting.
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