Tough-on-crime laws implemented in the 1980s as part of America’s so-called war on drugs are largely responsible for the country’s exploding prison population. To be sure, the Justice Department has recently started reforming the criminal justice system — in part, by ensuring low-level drug offenders don’t end up with lengthy prison sentences in the future.
Still, real reform will take years. Many of the country’s prisons are still overcrowded and violent, and the racial disparity found in prisons suggests the system unfairly penalizes African-Americans and Hispanics.
These charts and maps paint a picture of just how ineffective and costly US prisons are:
US prisons aren’t very effective at rehabilitating inmates. Most convicts return to prison within five years of their release.
The prison population is ageing quickly, and older inmates cost prisons more because they require more care and medical treatment.
The US prison population has ballooned throughout the past few decades, since the war on drugs began.
This growth in inmate population has made the US the world leader in prisoners per capita, with the exception of the tiny African country of Seychelles.
The number of executions has grown along with the prison population.
Much of this growth can be attributed to drug convictions.
The annual cost of incarceration is high: about $US29,000 per federal inmate. An interactive graphic from Texas lawyer David Breston shows that the taxpayer cost for the total inmate population could number in the millions for some states.
The prison system isn’t exactly fair, either. There are significant racial disparities in prisons, and the gap has been growing since 1960.
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