States of Incarceration: The Global Context 2024

by Emily Widra    Tweet this
June 2024

The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any independent democracy on earth — worse, every single state incarcerates more people per capita than most nations. In the global context, even “progressive” U.S. states like New York and Massachusetts appear as extreme as Louisiana and Mississippi in their use of prisons and jails.

World Incarceration Rates If Every U.S. State Were A Country

Rates calculated per 100,000 people. Read more about the data.

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Figure 1. This graph shows the number of people in state prisons, local jails, federal prisons, and other systems of confinement from each U.S. state and territory per 100,000 people in that state or territory and the incarceration rate per 100,000 in all countries with a total population of at least 500,000.

The graphic above charts the incarceration rates of every U.S. state and territory alongside those of the other nations of the world. Looking at each state in the global context reveals that, in every part 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. While El Salvador has an incarceration rate higher than any U.S. state,1 nine states have the next highest incarceration rates in the world, followed by Cuba. Overall, 24 U.S. states and three nations (El Salvador, Cuba, and Rwanda)2 have incarceration rates even higher than the national incarceration rate of the United States. Massachusetts, the state with the lowest incarceration rate in the nation, would rank 30th 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 Turkmenistan, Belarus, Russia, and Azerbaijan, have authoritarian or dictatorial governments, but the U.S. — the land of the free — still incarcerates more people per capita than almost every other nation. Importantly, high incarceration rates have little impact on violence and crime.

But how does the U.S. compare in the global context? Next to our closest international peers, our use of incarceration is off the charts:

graphic comparing the incarceration rates of the founding NATO members. The United States' incarceration rate of 608 per 100,000 is much higher than any of the others.

Figure 2. Compare another state:
or compare just the U.S. with its peers.

Conclusion

For decades, the U.S. has been engaged in a globally unprecedented experiment to make every part of its criminal legal 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 confinement3 — far more than other developed nations with comparable crime rates.4 As we’ve discussed, the U.S.’ high incarceration rates are not a rational response to high crime rates. Instead, they represent the aftermath of racist policies like the “war on drugs,” as well as politically expedient responses to public fears and perceptions about crime and violence.

Today, the United States is at an inflection point. In 2020, after protests of the murder of George Floyd, some glimmers of hope emerged that the country was finally ready to end the failed experiment of mass incarceration. However, more recently, many public officials have called for a return to the harmful policies of the past. The choices made in the coming years will determine whether the United States will finally bring its incarceration rate in line with the other nations that it considers its peers. 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.

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Methodology

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 criminal legal system-involved youth held in juvenile residential facilities, people detained by the U.S. Marshals Service (many pretrial), people detained for immigration offenses, people convicted of sex-related offenses who are 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 legal 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. 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-related offenses. Other states — including Wyoming, West Virginia, Alaska, Oregon, and Rhode Island — confine enough children that incarcerated youth account for more than 2.5% of the state’s incarcerated population. One state, Wyoming, incarcerates enough youth to increase their statewide incarceration rate by almost 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 criminal legal system-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:



Detailed data notes and sources

For the 50 U.S. states, we calculated incarceration rates per 100,000 total population that reflect our holistic view of confinement, which include:

  • people in state prison in each state,
  • people in local jails in each state,
  • people in federal prison from each state,
  • people held by the U.S. Marshals Service from each state,
  • people held in jails in Indian Country in each state,
  • youth held in “juvenile justice” facilities from each state,
  • criminal legal system-involved people involuntarily committed to other kinds of confinement in each state (i.e. people convicted of sex-related offenses held under “civil commitment” laws and people held in state psychiatric hospitals because of criminal charges or convictions.)

The raw data are available the accompanying appendix tables and the individual sources were as follows:

  • State prisons and local jails: In previous iterations of this report, we used the Correctional Populations in the United States series which provided a combined state prison and local jail count for each state that avoided double-counting people held in the physical custody of jails on behalf of state prison systems. Unfortunately, these data were not published by state in the 2020, 2021, or 2022 versions of the Bureau of Justice Statistics report, so we replicated the methodology used in that series with the Prisoners in 2022 — Statistical Tables and Census of Jails, 2019 data to calculate comparable populations, as explained below.
    • State prisons: The Bureau of Justice Statistics publishes the jurisdictional state prison populations in Table 2 of Prisoners in 2022 — Statistical Tables. These population totals include people held under the jurisdiction of state prison systems that are confined in local jails.
    • Local jails: The Bureau of Justice Statistics publishes the confined population of local jails by state in the Census of Jails, 2019. However, because (a) many jails “rent” space to state prison systems and (b) these systems report data differently,5 we adjusted the jail data to avoid double-counting people held in jails under the jurisdiction of a state prison system. We subtracted the number of people held in local jails for state prison systems as reported in Table 14 of Prisoners in 2022 from the confined populations reported in the Census of Jails. Given this adjustment, our jail populations reported in the Appendix Table 1 reflect the jurisdictional, confined jail population of each state.
  • Federal prisons: While federal prosecutions are nominally the result of federal policy, we attribute federal convictions to individual states in part because federal prosecutions affect state residents and in part because federal prosecutions are often coordinated with state prosecutors and state law enforcement. (In this way, our methodology departs from the way the Bureau of Justice Statistics calculates state rates. In Correctional Populations in the United States, 2022, people detained by or for the U.S. Marshals Service are not included at all, and other people incarcerated under federal jurisdiction are included in the total national incarceration rate but do not affect state incarceration rates.)

    To develop estimates of the number of people in federal prison from each state, we developed a ratio of the state of legal residence for the Bureau of Prisons population as of March 27, 2021 — based on our FOIA request — and applied it to the total federal prison population of 158,7033 reported by the Federal Bureau of Prisons as of May 31, 2024.
  • U.S. Marshals Service: The U.S. Marshals Service provided its most recent estimated population count in a February 2023 response to our FOIA request, reporting the projected average daily population for fiscal year 2023. While we did not have state of residence information for this custody population, we used the same ratio to reallocate these 60,439 people to states as we did for those under BOP jurisdiction. We reasoned that all people under federal jurisdiction, regardless of status (convicted, pretrial, or in transit), would likely come from the states in similar proportions.
  • Indian country jails: The Annual Survey of Jails in Indian Country, 2022 reports the confined population of adults and youth held in jails in Indian country in June 2022 by state. Six operational facilities did not report a population in 2022, so we substituted Annual Survey of Jails in Indian Country, 2021 data for these facilities (Tohono O’odham Adult Detention Center in Arizona, Colorado River Indian Tribes Adult and Juvenile Detention Centers in Arizona, Lac Vieux Desert Police Department Adult and Juvenile Holding Facility in Michigan, Fort Peck Indian Youth Service Center in Montana, and Medicine Root Detention Center in South Dakota).
  • Youth confinement: Because the United States confines large numbers of youth through its “juvenile justice” system, we included these youth in our national and state incarceration rates. Youth confined in places other than prison are not included in other countries’ incarceration rates in this report, but their inclusion would not change other countries’ rates much anyway,6 while the 24,894 confined youth in the U.S. add 7 incarcerated people per 100,000 population to the national rate. We did not make these adjustments for any other countries’ incarceration rates because for most countries, these data are not available or are not comparable to the system of youth confinement in the U.S.

    For youth in the U.S., the National Center for Juvenile Justice published the number of people younger than 21 in residential facilities by state7 as of October 27, 2021 based on the results of the Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement (CJRP). We included the national total of 24,894 in the national incarceration rate, but the totals for the states do not match the U.S total due to rounding for anonymity. (For more on this population, see our more detailed report Youth Confinement: The Whole Pie.)
  • Criminal legal system-related involuntary commitment:
    • State psychiatric hospitals confine people committed by courts after being found “not guilty by reason of insanity” (NGRI) or, in some states, “guilty but mentally ill” (GBMI) and others held for pretrial evaluation or for treatment as “incompetent to stand trial” (IST). The Treatment Advocacy Center’s 2024 report Prevention over Punishment, reporting findings from their 2023 survey that 18,948 people were confined to state psychiatric hospitals for criminal legal reasons. Minnesota did not report the relevant data to the Treatment Advocacy Center (TAC), but we found a 2022 report to the legislature where the state’s Department of Human Services’ Direct Care and Treatment Administration reported a census of 276 people in the care of the “forensic services” on June 30, 2021. Combined with the results reported in the TAC report, 24,894 people are confined to state psychiatric hospitals for criminal legal reasons in the U.S.
    • Civil detention and commitment: At least 20 states and the federal government operate facilities for the purposes of detaining people convicted of sex-related crimes after their sentences are complete. These facilities and the confinement there are technically civil, but in reality are quite like prisons. People under civil commitment are held in custody continuously from the time they start serving their sentence at a correctional facility through their confinement in the civil facility. The civil commitment counts come from an annual survey conducted by the Sex Offender Civil Commitment Programs Network shared by SOCCPN President Shan Jumper. Counts for most states are from the 2023 survey, but for states that did not participate in 2023, we included the most recent figures available: California’s count is as of 2022; Nebraska’s is from 2018; South Carolina’s is from 2021; and the federal Bureau of Prisons’ count is from 2017.

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:

  • Territorial prisons: The total jurisdictional populations under the authority of the U.S. Territories of American Samoa, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and U.S. Commonwealths of Northern Mariana Islands and Puerto Rico are reported in Table 25 of Prisoners in 2022 — Statistical Tables, reporting data for December 31, 2022.
  • Immigration detention: The currently detained population of 39,111 in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention comes from ICE’s FY 2024 ICE Statistics spreadsheet as of March 14, 2024. The count of 8,724 youth in Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) custody comes from the Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) Program Fact Sheet, reporting the population as of March 1, 2024.
  • Military prisons: The incarcerated populations under the jurisdictions of the U.S. military branches (a total of 1,105 people) are reported in Table 23 of Prisoners in 2022 — Statistical Tables, reporting data for December 31, 2022.

Population data for each state, used to calculate the incarceration rates, reflect the total resident population on July 1, 2023 for all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia as reported in the Census Bureau’s Annual Estimates of the Resident Population for the United States: April 1, 2020 — July 1, 2023. The April 1, 2020 populations of the American Samoa, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands were published in the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2020 Island Areas Censuses Demographic and Housing Characteristics Summary File (DHC).

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 March 2024. 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, the 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 Table 1: State Data and the final incarceration rate calculations for D.C. and the territories are:

Jurisdiction Incarceration Rate
District of Columbia 816
U.S. Virgin Islands 651
American Samoa 606
Guam 502
Northern Mariana Islands 400
Puerto Rico 343

See full methodology




Editors note: This report was updated on July 11, 2024 to correct a mathematical error in the calculation of the overall, national incarceration rate of the United States.



Acknowledgements

All Prison Policy Initiative reports are collaborative endeavors, but this report builds on the successful collaborations of the 2014, 2016, 2018, and 2021 versions. The Prison Policy Initiative is grateful for data artist Josh Begley’s original visual structure and for the Institute for Crime & Justice Policy Research’s aggregated world incarceration data in the invaluable World Prison Brief.

This report was made possible thanks to the generous support of our individual donors across the country who support justice reform.


About the author

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 and HIV prevalence in prisons. Her other research includes examining the high mortality rates of people on probation and parole, highlighting the counterproductive practice of locking up older adults, and assessing how prisons and jails provide punishment instead of treatment for people who use substances.


About the Prison Policy Initiative

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 U.S. states vary in their use of punishment. Alongside reports like these, the organization leads the nation’s fight to keep the prison system from exerting undue influence on the political process (a.k.a. prison gerrymandering) and played a leading role in protecting the families of incarcerated people from the predatory prison and jail telephone industry and the video calling industry.



Footnotes

  1. Sharp-eyed readers may notice that, in past versions of this report, the U.S. had the highest incarceration rate of all countries (among those with populations of at least 500,000 people). However, the latest international incarceration data indicates that El Salvador incarcerates more people per capita than any other nation or any U.S. state. This reflects a recent dramatic increase in incarceration in El Salvador, rather than any meaningful policy change to reduce incarceration in the United States (although, as we’ve reported, the U.S. incarceration rate also dropped as a result of temporary court slowdowns and changes related to the COVID-19 pandemic). In our 2021 report, El Salvador’s January 2021 incarceration rate was 562 per 100,000 as reported by the World Prison Brief. As of May 2022, the incarceration rate has practically doubled to 1,086 per 100,000 people and the prison population itself has doubled. In the past few years, El Salvador has been “run as a police state” with military and police indefinitely detaining people without providing a reason or access to a lawyer. The current incarceration rate in El Salvador is likely much higher than it was in May 2022, considering the nation has incarcerated more than 72,000 additional people between March 2022 and September 2023, but El Salvador has not formally disclosed any more recent prison population data.  ↩

  2. Previous iterations of this report relied on Cuba’s 2012 prison population, as new data had not been published in years. As of this report, Cuba released a new prison population count of 90,000 incarcerated people as of January 2020, a significant increase from their 2012 prison population of 57,000 people. While there is little information available about how, why, or when the prison population in Cuba increased so dramatically, it is likely that lengthy prison sentences and the continued government surveillance and arbitrary detention of activists and dissidents have contributed to the increased prison population in the last decade. Because this updated prison population is from 2020, it’s likely — particularly given the most recent changes to the penal code — that the incarceration rate in Cuba is even higher in 2024.

    In 2020, the incarceration rate in Rwanda was 515 per 100,000, and the most recent data from August 2023 reveals that the prison population has increased by over 20,000 people and the most recent incarceration rate is 637 per 100,000, making Rwanda the third and final nation with a higher incarceration rate than the United States. Rwanda’s prison population has been increasing over the past few decades, with thousands of people detained in connection with the 1994 genocide and an unknown number of imprisoned political opponents. In 2023, the U.S. Department of State reported a number of credible reports of arbitrary detention, unlawful interference with privacy, serious restrictions on free expression, and overly restrictive laws, likely contributing to the ballooning prison population in Rwanda.  ↩

  3. This statistic comes from a 2008 U.N. report comparing responses to crime in Europe and North America from 1995-2004. While this data point is now twenty years old, we are unaware of any more recent research that addresses the number of convictions resulting in confinement in the U.S. and other comparable nations.  ↩

  4. For example, Canada, England and Wales, Finland, and Germany are more likely to use fines and/or warnings instead of incarceration.  ↩

  5. There are two different ways to look at incarcerated populations: by custody or jurisdiction. The custody population refers to the number of incarcerated people physically held by an authority (i.e., someone physically detained in a local jail is in the custody of the local jail). The jurisdictional population reflects the legal authority under which someone is incarcerated, regardless of the type of correctional facility they are in. This means that there are people in the physical custody of local jails, but who are under the jurisdictional authority of another agency, such as another county’s jail system, the federal government (including the U.S. Marshals Service, immigration authorities, and the Bureau of Prisons), or state agencies (namely the state prison system). For more information on detainers and holds in local jails, see our June 2024 publication on local jail populations.  ↩

  6. Italy’s national incarceration rate, for instance, would increase by 2 people per 100,000 if we incorporated juvenile populations reported in the Italian Department of Juvenile and Community Justice Office’s report, “Minors and young adults in the care of juvenile service: Statistical analysis of data, 2022.” Canada’s incarceration rate would only increase by 1.3 per 100,000 based on the juvenile average daily population in custody of 500 youth in 2022-2023 as reported by Statistics Canada and the national population reported by the World Prison Brief. In England and Wales, 262 youth are already included in the national data provided by the World Prison Brief, but juveniles in other kinds of facilities (including Secure Training Centres and Local Authority Secure Children’s Homes) in England and Wales are not included in their data. Including these additional 138 youth would increase the overall rate for England and Wales by less than 1 person per 100,000.  ↩

  7. According to the National Center for Juvenile Justice, the national total excludes youth held in tribal facilities and the reported state is the “the state where the offense was committed.”  ↩

See all footnotes



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