States Sending the Most People to Prison

Last year, 1.57 million Americans served prison sentences in state or federal penitentiaries, a slight decrease from nearly 1.6 million in 2011, according to figures released Thursday by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). Despite the decline, the United States still incarcerates people at a higher rate than anywhere else in the world.

According to the BJS report “Prisoners in 2012,” for every 100,000 Americans, an estimated 480 people were serving at least a one-year sentence in a state prison during the year. In some states, the rate of incarceration was much higher. Louisiana, the state with the highest rate, sentenced 893 people to a state prison for every 100,000 residents. Based on the BJS release, 24/7 Wall St. identified the states that send the most people to prison.

As might be expected, states that had more people in their prison systems tended to have higher crime rates. Seven of the states with the highest incarceration rates were in the top 15 for murder rates, and overall violent crime rates were generally higher in these states as well. The states with high incarceration rates also tended to have high property crime rates. Of the 10 states on this list, eight had the highest burglary rates in the country.

While the causes of higher crime rates are difficult to determine, these states often shared some of the risk factors that appear to make their populations more likely to commit crimes. The states were among the most impoverished in the country, a factor commonly associated with crime. Residents of these states were also among the least likely to have graduated from high school, another factor often linked to higher crime rates.

But higher crime rates do not tell the whole story. In an interview with 24/7 Wall St., John Roman, Senior Fellow at the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center, explained that each state’s policies on enforcement are a major factor. “It really is a political choice,” he said.

There are several sentencing policies that can dramatically increase the number of inmates in a state’s prison system. According to Roman, such policy is mandatory minimum sentencing, which requires a minimum predetermined prison sentence length, regardless of the circumstances of the crime, tend to have larger prison populations. Roman also pointed to three-strikes laws, which impose much longer sentences on criminals who have committed three or more serious crimes.

“Take Texas,” said Roman. “Texas has some of the safest cities in America. You wouldn’t expect it to have a high incarceration rate, but it is third in the country.” Texas was notably the first state to adopt a three-strikes law. Most of the states on this list, he added, have a history of policies that are harsher on crime. For example, while much of the Northeast has begun to relax drug enforcement policies, the states on this list have kept strict drug enforcement in place.

To identify the states sending the most people to prison, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the states that had the most inmates in each state’s prison jurisdiction per 100,000 residents. The data come from Bureau of Justice Statistics’ “Prisoners in 2012” report. To be in a state’s jurisdiction, a prisoner needed to be sentenced within the state, not necessarily incarcerated there. We also reviewed educational attainment, income and poverty statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau for 2011. We also considered state crime rates from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, also for 2011. All data was for the most recent available period.

These are the states sending the most people to prison.