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Prison Population and Rates of Incarceration in the USA


Prison populations are rapidly growing with no leveling off of growth rate in sight in the United States. The cost of maintaining these facilities, feeding and providing for the prisoners as well as providing security is high, and many prisons are operating at close to or above full capacity.  While crime level appears to be driving some of this growth, much of it is connected to sentencing rules and guidelines, the length of sentences, and a general public intolerance of crimes. Racism is still prevalent in America and this is reflected in levels of sentencing and incarceration as well as the proportion of minority races in prisons. This study looks at minority races within prisons, what factors drove them to commit crimes, what their background is and what their sentencing severity was like compared to other races.


To do this, face-to-face interviews with prisoners and written questionnaires will be undertaken at many prisons across the country. This attempts to provide a snapshot of the current prison population in the US, how the racial minorities are distributed and whether there are differences in their sentencing and imprisonment compared to other races

Keywords: Prison population, incarcerations, disparity, sentencing policies, African American, racial minority.



Abstract 2

Introduction. 4

Literature Review.. 5

Why are Prison Populations so High?. 5

What is the Connection between Crime and Prison Population. 6

How are Minority Races Represented?. 7

Problem Statement 9

Definitions. 10

Research Design. 11

References. 13


The prison population in the United States has been growing rapidly for a many years, with no indications of a decrease. Within the five year period from 2000 to 2005, the population grew a total of seven percent, and this trend appears to be accelerating. This increase is of large concern for governing authorities, as there is a substantial cost involved per day in keeping prisoners incarcerated, both in terms of costs of providing food, electricity and water, and costs of employing security. There are two main reasons for this increase in prison population. Firstly, the rate of crime has increased over the years, and secondly there have been changes in sentencing guidelines that has increased the number of criminals that are incarcerated as a consequence of their crimes (King, 2007).

While the prison population is increasing, this increase is not equal across different races. Research suggests that the minority races, in particular African Americans are suffering higher rates of incarceration, with African Americans in the justice systems being 6.5 times more likely to be incarcerated than their white counterparts when the same set of factors is involved (Lee, 2007).

The first part of this study looks at the literature concerning the current sentencing guidelines, the reasons for high prison populations, what attempts are being done to lower this, and how this is related to minority ethnic groups. The second part of this study will set forth a proposal for research into the rates and reasons for imprisonment within the ethnic minorities groups as well as a hypothesis and methods of research. Finally I will outline the expected findings of the research as well as any potential problems and limitations.

Literature Review

Why are Prison Populations so High?

There has been growing concern about the levels of prison populations in the United States for many years. Between the period of 1980 and 1996 the rates of incarnation grew by 200%  (Blumstein & Beck, 1999), while the period of 1980 to 2000 showed a 321% increase (Kovandzic & Vieraitis, 2006). Although there have been many attempts to reduce levels of imprisonment, this has been proven to be difficult, as there are fears of increasing crime levels as a consequence. Indeed, the predominant method of reducing crime is to incarcerate criminals, under the assumption that they are unable to commit crimes while they are incarcerated (Marvell & Moody, 1994).

There are a number of problems with the high prison population. Firstly, there is significant cost involved in feeding, housing and providing security for the prisoners. (Schmitt, Warner, & Gupta, 2010). One problem is determining what the capacity of prisons actually is, and how close prisons are to their maximum capacity. This is because prison management differs across different prisons, with many being run privately, with the definition of capacity and the measures used to find out the number of prisoners differing widely. In some states the information is available, and in 2001 22 states were operating at or above their highest capacity. This presents a number of problems, as spare capacity needs to be available for special cases, protective customary as well as disciplinary needs  (Blumstein & Beck, 1999).

One of the driving forces behind prison population increase is sentencing guidelines. The concept behind imprisonment is to provide a form of punishment for those committing crimes, a deterrent to attempt to reduce the propensity of individuals to commit crimes, and the hope that the environment of prison of the length of sentence will change a criminal’s behavior (Reynolds, 1990). There have been some recent efforts to curb the growth rate in prisons by reforming the sentencing guidelines. This resulted in alternatives to incarceration for many non-violent crimes, particularly drug-based crimes. In many cases sentencing that helped offenders to stop using drugs were introduced. However, this had little effect on the growth rates of the prison population  zero policy and three strikes policies were introduced for many violent crimes (King, 2007).

There has been an ever-increasing trend towards strict sentencing laws. As crime has risen, the public has pushed for sentencing laws to be tight, and there to be little flexibility for criminals. This has resulted in judges and officials being restricted on how much they can examine the individual situation and circumstances surrounding a case and are often required to sentence even when this may not be the most effective course for the criminal (Mauer, 2001).

Part of the reason for high prison populations is the length of sentences. Many sentences are long, some lifetime imprisonment, while others are 10, 20 or more years. Some authors suggest that these need to be addressed if any real improvement in prison populations is to be seen (King, 2007). One of the problems with long sentences is that they are counterproductive. Instead of encouraging criminals not to commit crimes, extended imprisonment strips the individual of many of the family and social ties as well as their support networks. When an offender re-enters society after a relatively short imprisonment, many of their support networks have been maintained, and they are in a substantially better position to begin life as a productive member of society, if they choose this. In contrast, offenders that have been incarcerated for substantial periods of time have little idea of what the outside world is now like, they have lost contact with most of their family and support, and have little idea about how to be a productive member of society. These individuals often end up returning to crime as they feel they have no other option (Langan & Levin, 2002).

When considering whether changes in crime rate have an effect on prison growth rate, one study that looked at property crime found there was no correlation, indicating that crime is not the predominant driver of prison growth rate, and that it may not be related at all (Marvell & Moody, 1994). A study looking at population trends in 1999 found no evidence that changes in crime rate had an effect on the prison population (Caplow & Simon, 1999). However, another study, looking at homicide found that there was a significant relationship between the growth rate of prison populations and reduced homicide rates (Marvell & Moody, 1994).

A study in 1991 found no evidence that linked some of the widely believed causal factors with the increase in prison population. They found no evidence of an increased use of mandatory sentencing laws; there is no increase in the length of prison terms, or in the length of time individuals were being made to serve before being able to take parole. The only significant effect that was found was an overall increase in the chance of an individual being incarcerated for a crime (Langan, 1991) . For drug related incarcerations, the rise in prison population has been driven by several different aspects. The first is a strong rise in arrest rates, followed by an increase in the number of criminals referred to prison and finally in some cases there have also been an increase in the time served (Blumstein & Beck, 1999).

What is the Connection between Crime and Prison Population?

The assumption that the incarceration of criminals decreases the rate of crime is one of the key reasons for the high populations of US prisons; the exact relationship between the two is debated. This is partly because it is difficult to prove that the two are connected due to simultaneity, i.e. the events happening at the same point in time in at least one frame of measurement (Levitt, 1996).

A study on property crime found that there was a correlation between the growth of the prison population and the decrease of crime, indicating that incarcerating criminals did indeed decrease crime (Marvell & Moody, 1994). Likewise, for homicide a ten percent increase in the population was related to a decrease in homicide rate of 13%. Robbery and assault also showed similar trends (Marvell & Moody, 1997). In contrast, an extensive study found no support for the link between prison growth and reduced crime. While at the national level this trend is evident, the same is not true when data is analyzed at the level of the county. As prison populations continues to expand, it is likely that any effect that they have on crime rates will decrease, as more low rate and low severity criminals are incarcerated. Likewise, the threat of imprisonment works as a method of controlling crime in part due to the stigma attached to being imprisoned. As the populations of prisons continue to increase the number of people who have been in prison increases, and the stigma decreases, in turn decreasing the effectiveness of prison as a method of preventing crime (Kovandzic & Vieraitis, 2006).

One study looked at this in a different manner, looking at what effect the reduction of one prisoner from incarceration had on crime rates. On average they found that a one prisoner reduction was connected to an increase of 15 crimes per year (Levitt, 1996).

How is Minority Races Represented?

The population of the US is not uniform, and there are many minority groups widely present. While there have been many increases in equality of treatment across races, it is clear that there is still some way to go. The historical election of President Barack Obama into office, making him our first black president has played a large role in the rights and the equal treatment of minority races, however there are still many socioeconomic examples of racial differences in factors such as employment and rate of incarceration (Lee, 2007).

The rates of incarceration have not risen at the same rates for different minorities. For African Americans the rate of increase has been 184% while it has been 235% for Hispanics. In contrast for non-Hispanic whites the rate has been 164% (Blumstein & Beck, 1999). A strong example of this is the imprisonment rate of young African Americans. Throughout the country an average of three African Americans for every four serves some time in prison. This is a high rate, and is not proportionate to rates for non-Hispanic whites (Alexander, 2009).

The question remains, what is driving the high rates of imprisonment for racial minorities? Is there an increased propensity to imprison minorities, where others may be released with a fine or a warning? Is there a higher rate of crime for minorities? If there is, what drives it?

One indication of racial discrimination comes from a study looking at women who expose their babies who are still in the womb to drugs. The general outcome to these cases is imprisonment, and on release the women are required to be on birth control. The amount of individuals that are imprisoned and the treatment after is equal across races; however there is a strong feeling of discrimination among black women, as higher levels of scrutiny and observation results in them getting caught more often than their white counterparts (Roberts, 1997). Another indication of discrimination is the wages gap. In many cases racial minorities work the same jobs as whites, the same hours, but on average they have lower wages. In addition, the rate of racial minorities being laid off is higher than that for whites (McCall, 2001).

Racial discrimination in sentencing and arrest is not the only reason for the increased prevalence of minority groups, particularly African Americans in prisons. Another strong reason is upbringing. On average, African Americans are exposed to harsher upbringings than other racial groups. There is a high tendency for drunkenness and abuse from parents, and individuals who are not inclined this way often find that people assume they are and react accordingly. Many African Americans, particularly women feel that they are constantly fighting a stereotype. Most people who interact with them do so on the basis of race rather than the individual. In a substantial number of cases, African Americas turn to crime as they are tired of fighting discrimination within the system and from individuals (Johnson, 2003). African American families are characterized by dysfunctional families, often with abusive members, high poverty and powerless especially in terms of obtaining employment. This environment makes crime a more appealing option. The laws and guidelines of society provide little assistance to providing for the family in many cases, and as a consequence individuals turn to crime either as a way of providing for their family, or as a method of rebellion against the system in general (Billingsley, 1994).

Problem Statement

Prison populations are climbing rapidly and there appears to be no end in sight. The factors that drive this climb are varied, with some studies indicating that crime is a driver, while others suggest that harsh sentencing guidelines and laws are largely to blame for the rise. Studies indicate that the prison population and rates of incarceration are not equal across the races, with racial minorities, particularly African Americans facing higher penalties, increased surveillance and scrutiny as well as a higher level of incarceration as a result of sentencing. This study aims to look at the representation of ethnic minorities currently imprisoned throughout the US as well as to examine the causes of both imprisonment and crime for these and how these differ between the minority groups and the average white American.


As a consequence I propose four hypotheses, which this study will test:

1.      I hypothesize that there will be a higher proportion of prisoners from minority races, particularly African American in US prisons compared to their proportion outside of imprisonment.

2.       I hypothesize that a higher amount of individuals from minority racial groups will have been incarcerated for low impact crimes than from other groups

3.      I hypothesize that sentencing length will be longer on average for minority racial groups than for other groups

  1. I hypothesize that a higher proportion of minority racial groups will have committed crimes in order to provide for their families than other groups.

Research Design

In order to answer the hypotheses proposed in the above section, my research will involve both surveys and interviews with prisoners at a number of US prisons. At least ten prisons will be chosen for the interview portion of the study. These will be chosen based on accessibility as well as the ability to obtain permission to talk to prisoners and permission from the prisoners themselves. Interviews will be detailed and ask many questions about background of the prisoner, the driving factors behind their crime, their plans upon release and their impression of the justice system as a whole. Because of necessity the number of prisons may need to be reduced depending on the cooperation of the prisons and prisoners, as the prisons will need to be accessed in person. Where possible the responses of prisoners will be recorded audibly so they can be evaluated fully at a later date. Where prisoners or prison authorities do not agree to this, a written version of the questions and answers will be made during the interview. Information about the crime and sentence will be obtained from prisoner records where possible, as prisoners may not be comfortable talking about this. Below is a sample of some of the questions that will be asked during the interview:


–          What racial group do you identify yourself with?

–          If you feel comfortable talking about it, what were some of the driving factors behind your crime?

–          Growing up, did you ever feel any racial discrimination? Can you explain an example?

–          Do you think your sentence was fair? Why or why not?

–          Do you know what you will do when you are released? Do you have any plans?

–          Do you have friends or family on the outside? Do you stay in contact?


In addition to interviews a written questionnaire will be produced that asks a number of short questions. These will be distributed to around 50 prisons nationwide. The response rate to written questionnaires is generally low, so a large number will be distributed in order to get enough responses for study. Prisoners will not be required to provide any personally identifiable information on the questionnaires. Some questions that will be given are listed below:


–          What racial group do you identify with?

–          What crime were you sentenced for?

–          What was your sentence?

–          Do you feel your sentence was fair?

–          What factors made you commit the crime initially?

–          Do you have contact with people outside of prison such as friends or family?

–          What are your plans on release?


Responses to both the interview questions and the questionnaire will be collated, and examined for trends. Statistical analysis will be performed on these to determine whether there were significant differences between the races in the responses to questions.

This research provides information that is a snapshot in time. It tells us information about what is happening now, and what the current trends are, but gives little information about trends leading up to this point. This is a consequence of the type of research that is being undertaken, it is all dealing with current prisoners. This is not a disadvantage as there is already a large range of evidence dealing with past trends, and it gives us up to date information of which there is little available dealing with these specific questions.  One disadvantage of this research is that it may be difficult to get interviews with prisoners, and by necessity these must be somewhat close to the researcher’s location, as the prisons must be visited physically. The same is not true of the questionnaires which can be mailed.


African American: An American citizen of African descent.

Hispanic: An individual that identifies themselves as Spanish origin. Hispanics may often identify themselves as several races simultaneously.

Incarceration: Involuntary imprisonment within a facility, often correctional, such as a prison for a period that is determined by other individuals.

Minority racial group: Any group that is represented as less than 20% of the entire US

Sentence: The penalty that is applied to someone at the conclusion of criminal procedure when the individual is convicted of a crime population.

White American: The most common racial group present in the United States. Generally, these are individuals that do not identify themselves with any racial group such as African American, Hispanic or other races.


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