Not only does the U.S. have the highest incarceration rate in the world; every single U.S. state incarcerates more people per capita than virtually any independent democracy on earth. To be sure, states like New York and Massachusetts appear progressive in their incarceration rates compared to states like Louisiana, but compared to the rest of the world, every U.S. state relies too heavily on prisons and jails to respond to crime.
Rates calculated per 100,000 people. Read more about the data.
The graphic above charts the incarceration rates of every U.S. state alongside those of the other nations of the world. And looking at each state in the global context reveals that, in every region of the country, incarceration is out of step with the rest of the world.
If we imagine every state as an independent nation, as in the graph above, every state appears extreme. 24 states would have the highest incarceration rate in the world — higher even than the United States. Massachusetts, the state with the lowest incarceration rate in the nation, would rank 17th in the world with an incarceration rate higher than Iran, Colombia, and all the founding NATO nations.
In fact, many of the countries that rank alongside the least punitive U.S. states, such as Turkey, Thailand, Rwanda, and Russia, have authoritarian governments or have recently experienced large-scale internal armed conflicts. Others struggle with “violent crime”1 on a scale far beyond that in the U.S.: South Africa, Panama, Costa Rica, and Brazil all have murder rates2 more than double that of the U.S. Yet the U.S., “the land of the free,” tops them all.
But how does the U.S. compare to countries that have stable democratic governments and comparable crime rates? Next to our closest international peers, our use of incarceration is off the charts:
The incarceration rates in every U.S. state are out of line with the entire world, and we found that this disparity is not explainable by differences in crime or “violent crime.”3 In fact, there is little correlation between high rates of “violent crime” and the rate at which the U.S. states lock people up in prisons and jails.
When we compare U.S. states and other nations in terms of both “violent crime” and incarceration, we find ourselves more closely aligned with nations with authoritarian governments or recently large-scale internal armed conflicts. Rather than any of the founding NATO member countries traditionally compared to the United States, the only countries that approach the incarceration rate and “violent crime” rates of the 50 states are El Salvador, Panama, Peru, and Turkey. Every U.S. state, and the United States as a nation, is an outlier in the global context. No other country incarcerates as many people, including countries with similar rates of “violent crime:”
For four decades, the U.S. has been engaged in a globally unprecedented experiment to make every part of its criminal justice system more expansive and more punitive. As a result, incarceration has become the nation’s default response to crime, with, for example, 70 percent of convictions resulting in confinement — far more than other developed nations with comparable crime rates.4 Our new analysis of incarceration rates and crime rates across the world reveals that the U.S.’s high incarceration rates are not a rational response to high crime rate, but rather a politically expedient response to public fears and perceptions about crime and violence.
Today, there is finally serious talk of change, but little action that would bring the United States to an incarceration rate on par with other stable democracies. The incremental changes made in recent years aren’t enough to counteract the bad policy choices built up in every state over decades. For that, all states will have to aim higher, striving to be not just better than the worst U.S. states, but among the most fair and just in the world.
Like our report, Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie, this report takes a comprehensive view of confinement in the United States that goes beyond the commonly reported statistics by more than 100,000 people to offer a fuller picture of this country’s different and overlapping systems of confinement.
This broader universe of confinement includes justice-involved youth held in juvenile residential facilities, people detained by the U.S. Marshals Service (many pre-trial), people detained for immigration offenses, sex offenders indefinitely detained or committed in “civil commitment centers” after completing a sentence, and those committed to psychiatric hospitals as a result of criminal charges or convictions. They are not typically included in the official statistics that aggregate data about prison and jails for the simple reason that these facilities are largely separate from the state and local systems of adult prisons and jails. That definitional distinction is relevant to the people who run prisons and jails, but is irrelevant to the advocates and policymakers who must confront the overuse of confinement by all of the various parts of the justice systems in the United States.
To provide the most up-to-date assessment of incarceration rates in every state we use the most recent datasets available. However, because the federal and state incarceration data are released on different schedules, there are differences in the time periods for which the population data reflect. It is worth noting the federal data comes from 2020 and 2021, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, while state data reflect an earlier time period. For more information on these differences, see the sidebar below.
We included these confined populations in the total incarceration rate of the United States and, wherever state-level data made it possible, in state incarceration rates. In most states, these additions have a small impact on the total rate, and they don’t impact the rankings by more than one or two positions for any state. In a few places, however, these other systems of confinement merit closer attention. For example, although Minnesota has one of the lowest overall incarceration rates, Minnesota is second only to the much larger state of California for civil commitment and detention of people convicted of sex offenses. Other states — including Indiana, Iowa, Idaho, and Nebraska — confine large numbers of youth, to the point that the inclusion of these youth adds more than 20 people per 100,000 to their incarceration rates. One state, West Virginia, incarcerates enough youth to increase their statewide incarceration rate by more than 30 people per 100,000.
As a result of our choice to take a broader view of incarceration, this report creates a unique U.S. dataset that offers a complete look at all kinds of justice-related confinement in each state. We explain our specific data sources in more detail below and provide the raw data for the component parts of our calculations in two appendices to this report, Appendix 1: State Data and Appendix 2: Country Data.
Our data on other countries comes from the indispensable Institute for Criminal Policy Research’s World Prison Brief.
For the 50 U.S. states, we calculated incarceration rates per 100,000 total population that reflect our holistic view of confinement, which include:
Three additional categories of confinement are included in the national incarceration rate for the United States, but not in state rates, because state-level data were not available:
For the incarceration rates of other countries, we used the most recent incarceration rate data available from the Institute for Criminal Policy Research’s World Prison Brief in May 2018. For this report, we decided to accept the World Prison Brief’s definition of country, choosing to exclude countries only for reasons of population size. To make the comparisons more meaningful to U.S. states, we’ve chosen to include only independent nations with total populations of more than 500,000 people.
In order to make the graph comparing the founding NATO nations to individual states, however, we had to make two exceptions to this policy. First, we included Iceland, which is a founding NATO member, even though its population is below 500,000. We also aggregated the total incarcerated and total population data for the three separate nations of England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Island, into the one member of NATO, the United Kingdom.
A note about the District of Columbia and U.S. territories: This report focuses on comparing individual states to other countries, so we chose to not include the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, or the U.S. Virgin Islands in the main graphic in this report, although we did make separate NATO comparison graphics for these places. However, the incarceration data for D.C. and the territories, where they exist, are in Appendix 1: State Data and the final incarceration rate calculations for D.C. and the territories are:
|District of Columbia
|Northern Mariana Islands
|U.S. Virgin Islands
For the U.S.’ national and state violent crime data, we used the combined rates of murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, rape/sexual violence, robbery, and aggravated/serious assault per 100,000 reported in the FBI’s Universal Crime Reporting program’s Tables 4 and 5. We used the estimated number of crimes because, in most cases, the estimated and reported numbers did not vary significantly. However, since some states had a low percentage of agencies reporting, estimates helped to avoid undercounting.
For international violent crime data, we used the following spreadsheets from the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime: serious assault, robbery, homicide rates (option with map)7, and sexual violence.8 We added the crime rates per 100,000 for each crime category together to get the total violent crime rate for each country. We only included countries that had complete violent crime data and populations of at least 500,000.
To customize this report with state data that you are most likely to find relevant, this report makes an educated but unrecorded guess about your location based on your IP address. Where we can’t make this guess, the page may request your location for that purpose. If you gave us this permission, we discarded your location data as the page finished loading. If you did not give us this permission — or if your browser was configured to decline permission automatically — this report simply gives a more generic experience.
All Prison Policy Initiative reports are collaborative endeavors, but this report builds on the successful collaborations of the 2014, 2016, and 2018 versions. Beyond the original structure developed by data artist Josh Begley, the authors of this year’s report are particularly indebted to Jordan Miner, Matt Mitchell, and Peter Wagner for helping us upgrade the technology in this report and to the Institute for Crime & Justice Policy Research for aggregating comparable world incarceration data in the invaluable World Prison Brief.
This report was made possible by the Public Welfare Foundation, and by generous contributions from our individual donors, who give us the resources and the flexibility to quickly turn our insights into new movement resources.
Emily Widra is a Senior Research Analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative. She is the organization’s expert on health and safety issues behind bars, including the coronavirus in prisons; over the past year, she has curated the Prison Policy Initiative’s virus response page, which tracks the policy changes that prisons have made in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Her previous research also includes analyses of mortality in prisons and the combined impact of HIV and incarceration on Black men and women.
Tiana Herring is a Research Associate at the Prison Policy Initiative. Joining the Prison Policy Initiative during the COVID-19 pandemic, she helped the organization quickly increase its output of analyses about the coronavirus behind bars and was the author of States of Emergency: The Failure of Prison System Responses to COVID-19. Tiana’s work also includes analyses of several important drivers of mass incarceration, including outdated “felony theft” thresholds, the war on drugs, needless parole denials, and money bail.
The non-profit, non-partisan Prison Policy Initiative was founded in 2001 to expose the broader harm of mass criminalization and spark advocacy campaigns to create a more just society. The organization is known for its visual breakdown of mass incarceration in the U.S., as well as its data-rich analyses of how states vary in their use of punishment. It sounded the national alarm about the threat of coronavirus to jails and prisons with its March 2020 report No need to wait for pandemics: The public health case for criminal justice reform, and its data-driven coverage of the pandemic behind bars continues to advance the national movement to protect incarcerated people from COVID-19.
We recognize there are inherent problems associated with designating crimes as “violent” or “nonviolent.” For more information on why this metric was used, see “How and why we measured ‘violent crime’” below. ↩
As of 2018. ↩
The distinction between “violent” and other crime types is a dubious one; what constitutes a “violent crime” varies from state to state, and acts that are considered “violent crimes” do not always involve physical harm. The Justice Policy Institute explains many of these inconsistencies, and why they matter, in its comprehensive and relevant report, Defining Violence. ↩
For a more detailed analysis of the dubious distinction between “violent” and other offense types, we recommend the Justice Policy Institute’s report, Defining Violence, explaining many of these inconsistencies and why they matter. ↩
The federal government consistently uses these categories — murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, rape/sexual violence, robbery, and aggravated/serious assault — to define “violent crime” across the relevant reporting agencies: the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Bureau of Justice Statistics, and National Institute of Justice. Therefore, we applied the same categorization of “violent crime” to state data for comparison purposes, although some states may or may not exclude these categories in their state-specific definitions of “violent crime.” ↩
There are 14 spreadsheets available for international homicide data. We chose the “option with map” because it seemed to be the most similar to the other datasets we used to calculate international “violent crime” rates. ↩
The serious assault, robbery, and sexual violence spreadsheets use reported data, while the homicide rate data reports estimates. The spreadsheets provided longitudinal data but we only used the crime rate data from the most recent year available. All of the data used were already presented as a rate per 100,000. ↩