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What Everyone Needs to Know About our Criminal Justice System

Do criminal justice reform, the cash bail system, and extreme prison sentences interest you? If not, they should. Today, many nonviolent criminals sit in prison. America’s criminal justice system costs us around $80 billion a year to keep about 2.3 million people incarcerated. Meanwhile, other important federal and state programs remain underfunded. 

Here are some astonishing facts and figures about America’s criminal justice system. 

Our Incarceration Crisis 

  • As of 2020, more than 2.3 million people are incarcerated in America’s jails and prisons.
  • The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.
  • The United States has more than 1,700 state prisons, 109 federal prisons, 1,800 juvenile correctional facilities, more than 3,100 local jails, and 80 Indian Reservation jails. There are also military prisons, immigration detention facilities, and jails in U.S. territories like Puerto Rico and Guam.
  • The number of people jailed has increased by 500% over the last four decades while our total U.S. population has increased by only 45%. 
  • Close to 200,000 people are serving time for drug-related offenses as of 2020, compared to only 17,000 in 1980. When adjusted for population growth, this represents a more than 1,000% increase. 
  • States spend about $60 billion per year on correctional facilities, compared to $6.7 billion in 1985. When adjusted for inflation, this represents a 400% increase in spending. 

Prisoner Demographics

  • People of color make up about 40% of the nation’s population. Yet, they comprise almost 70% of the prison population.
  • Black men are six times more likely to serve prison time than white men.
    Latinx men are more than twice as likely to receive a jail sentence as white men.
  • Approximately 93% of all those serving time in prison are men.
    Black women are twice as likely to go to prison as white women.
  • Black men born in 2001 had a 32% chance of serving prison time at some time in their lives, Latinx men had a 17% chance, and white men had a 6%.

Ranking Incarceration Rates by States 

  • States with the highest incarceration rates include Louisiana, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Arizona.
  • States with the lowest incarceration rates include Massachusetts, Maine, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Minnesota.

We Need Bail and Sentencing Reform 

One of the most heart-wrenching facts about America’s criminal justice system is that millions of pre-trial detainees have few rights. In some cases, a small minority of detainees are able to make bail within a few days and head home to await trial. However, those with few financial resources must remain in jail until their court dates. In addition, pre-trial detention increases conviction rates. 

America needs criminal justice reform.


About the author

Debbie Schramm is the President at Saxum, a digital agency obsessed for good. You can follow her on LinkedIn for insights into crisis management, public affairs, and people development.