The United States has been widely criticized for having the highest incarceration rate in the world. The rate is measured in several ways. The World Population Review puts the American figure at 639 per 100,000 people. By that measure, El Salvador is second at 566. There are hurdles to posting figures that are consistent from country to country. Nations track figures differently, and the reports may not all be for the same year. However, what is clear is that no other large developed nation has an incarceration rate close to America’s.
There is no single reason that the number of people in prison compared to the population in the United States is so high. However, one given regularly is that drug offenses have unusually harsh sentences compared to many other nations. Another is that the rate of incarceration among Black Americans is astonishingly high and the justice system operates in a way that keeps it that way. The Guardian pointed out the incarceration rate of Black Americans compared to whites in America’s state prisons is higher than five to one.
The incarceration rate among states and regions varies widely. The Population Reference Bureau put the rate in the South at 86% higher than in the Northeast. The state numbers are even more dramatic.
The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit with a goal to reduce the level of mass incarceration in the United States, used the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics data for 2019 to provide corrections information by state. Base on their analysis, the incarceration rate nationally is 371 per 100,000. This differs from The World Population Review because The Sentencing Project includes only the “number of prisoners under state or federal jurisdiction.”
According to The Sentencing Project’s review, Louisiana had the highest rate at 680. It is followed by Oklahoma (639), Mississippi (636), Arkansas (586) and Arizona (558). The states with the lowest rates are Massachusetts (133), Maine (146), Rhode Island (156), Minnesota (176) and Vermont (182).