Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Mass Incarceration: Breaking Down the Data by State

with 7 comments

I don’t think it can be hammered home enough how anomalous America’s incarceration rate has become in the world, and in history. Russia is the only other “superpower” that incarcerates its citizens at a rate comparable to ours. There is no Western European country, no Asian power, no large Latin American country in the Top Ten — on this metric, at least, America truly is exceptional. The chart also reflects the end result of fairly recent developments; the U.S. did not historically have an unusually high incarceration rate. (For that chart, click here or see this Christian Science Monitor piece).

However, I also think it’s important to keep in mind that incarceration rates vary quite a bit by state. The states with the highest incarceration rates overall are in the Deep South, while states in the Midwest and Northeast have lower incarceration rates overall but tend to have more dramatic racial disparities than the Southern states. California’s rate of incarceration is average for the U.S., but, given its population, that makes for the nation’s largest prison system in absolute terms. All these differences are the results of different regional historical trajectories, and may require different policy responses. The Sentencing Project has an indispensable interactive tool on its website where you can easily compare incarceration data by state.

One thing these differences by state are not the result of, at least not primarily, is crime rates. As I’ve noted before, incarceration rates are largely driven by policy choices, not crime rates or demographics. Wisconsin and Minnesota have similar demographics and crime rates but Wisconsin has a much larger prison population. A similar disparity exists between North Dakota and South Dakota (I suggest comparing them on the Sentencing Project tool). After the jump, I’ll provide a table of the highest and lowest incarceration rates by state and assess how these states would stack up in a global comparison.

Incarceration Rates by State

A note about data: Different studies measure the base population and the prison/jail population differently, so you shouldn’t take these per-100,000 figures as gospel, but rather as a rough estimate that is useful for making relative comparisons. If you’re comparing data across different studies, you should be careful to make sure the data samples were defined in a roughly equivalent way. The data I’m using here comes from the Pew Center on the States and is based on 2005 prison/jail populations. Given these caveats, I wouldn’t suggest plugging these state numbers directly into the country comparison charts I’ve also provided in this post, but rather using them to make rough comparisons.

Top Ten Incarceration Rates
These states’ incarceration rates are not only the highest in the U.S. but by far the highest in the world.

1. Louisiana — 1,138 per 100,000
2. Georgia — 1,021
3. Texas — 976
4. Mississippi — 955
5. Oklahoma — 919
6. Alabama — 890
7. Florida — 835
8. South Carolina — 830
9. Delaware — 820
10. Arizona — 808

Lowest Ten Incarceration Rates
These states all have incarceration rates that would still place them near the Top Ten in the world — and thus, still at least 2-3 times higher than Western European rates.

50. Maine — 273
49. Minnesota — 300
48. Rhode Island — 313
47. Vermont — 317
46. New Hampshire — 319
45. Massachusetts — 356
44. North Dakota — 359
43. Iowa — 412
42. Nebraska — 421
41. West Virginia — 443

U.S. Incarceration Rate in International Context

source: The Sentencing Project (click for PDF download)


7 Responses

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  1. Another possibly interesting way of thinking about this is to compare the U.S. incarceration rate with another metric by which the U.S. is often described as exceptional in the Western world: homicide rates. By doing so, you can further see how truly exceptional the U.S. incarceration rate is:

    – While the U.S. does have a higher homicide rate than most European countries, it’s nowhere near the highest in the world; and if you break it down by state, the low-crime states would (I believe) have homicide rates comparable to Europe.

    – In contrast, the U.S. incarceration rate is not only much higher than other Western countries but also by far the highest in the world. Even the states with the lowest incarceration rates in the U.S. still have rates 2-3x higher than Western Europe, Canada, Japan, etc.

    – Also perhaps worth noting is that the U.S. homicide rate has been comparatively high since the mid-19th century. The incarceration rate has only skyrocketed in recent decades.


    July 13, 2010 at 9:27 am

  2. Great post. One question though. If incarceration rates are not driven by demographics why does the South, with it’s disproportionate African-descended population, have the highest incarceration rates?

    I understand the Wisconsin/Minnesota point made but does the South, as a larger phenomenon contradict that?


    July 15, 2010 at 7:44 am

    • Hi marcg, interesting question. I should say that demographics may certainly play a role in explaining some of the regional variations, but can’t be the whole story. The South’s high incarceration rates may indicate some cultural or political commonalities across those states but can’t be explained simply by demographics. Even within the South, you still see large variations in incarceration rate — for instance, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee have large African-American populations but don’t have incarceration rates as high as the Deep South states.

      It’s also worth noting that the Deep South states have high incarceration rates not just among African-American or minority populations but also for whites. In fact, Southern racial disparities in incarceration are less dramatic than the Midwestern and Northeastern states — not because they don’t imprison large and disproportionate numbers of African-Americans, which they do, but because they also imprison whites at very high rates compared to other states.

      Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project: “In addition to crime rates, the discretion of policymakers and practitioners in decisions related to arrest, conviction, sentencing, and severity of statutory punishment all play a key role in determining state rates of imprisonment.” I believe that all of the Southern states have strict drug laws and sentencing laws, and strict uses of discretion throughout the criminal justice system – more people are sent to prison, and for longer. However, I am certainly not an expert.

      You can download a report on “State Rates of Incarceration by Race & Ethnicity” here:

      Click to access rd_stateratesofincbyraceandethnicity.pdf

      Another resource is the Pew “One in 100” report:


      July 15, 2010 at 10:23 am

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