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Releasing Drug Offenders Won’t End Mass Incarceration

It’s been a landmark week in the criminal-justice world, as a barnstorming President Obama pushed for broad reforms to the sentencing system and called for an end to mass incarceration. (The U.S. has roughly 5 percent of the world’s population, but a quarter of its prison population.) On Monday he commuted the sentences of 46 federal drug offenders. On Tuesday he addressed the NAACP’s national conference, delivering a sobering and expansive speech with a list of proposed reforms. And on Thursday he became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison.

“Over the last few decades, we’ve also locked up more and more nonviolent drug offenders than ever before, for longer than ever before,” Obama said in Philadelphia at the NAACP conference. “And that is the real reason our prison population is so high.”

But that’s not exactly the case. Serious prison reform — and shedding the dubious mantle of World’s Leading Incarcerator — will have to look far beyond just nonviolent drug offenders. Heavy prison sentences for drug crimes are only one of many reasons why the United States has by far the highest incarceration rate in the world.

As Obama said in his speech, there is remarkable bipartisan agreement on this issue. Even in the current polarized political climate, real reform is possible. U.S. Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) are sponsoring bills that would reform drug-crime sentencing, restrict the use of mandatory minimums, broaden the use of probation, and increase the discretion given to judges in sentencing nonviolent drug offenders. Even the American Civil Liberties Union and Koch Industries have joined forces. They co-authored an article in Politico last week declaring their support for the Sensenbrenner-Scott bill.

It’s not clear yet how many current and future inmates would be affected by these bills — an analysis by the U.S. Sentencing Commission of the Sensenbrenner-Scott bill is expected in August or September — but let’s consider some extreme scenarios and the effect they’d have on the American prison population.

According to the Bureau of Prisons, there are 207,847 people incarcerated in federal prisons. Roughly half (48.6 percent) are in for drug offenses. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there are 1,358,875 people in state prisons. Of them, 16 percent have a drug crime as their most serious offense. There were also 744,600 inmates in county and city jails. (The BOP data is current as of July 16. From BJS, the latest jail statistics are from midyear 2014, and the latest prison statistics from year-end 2013.) That’s an incarceration rate of about 725 people per 100,000 population.

Suppose every federal drug offender were released today. That would cut the incarceration rate to about 693 inmates per 100,000 population. Suppose further that every drug offender in a state prison were also released. That would get the rate down to 625. It’s a significant drop, no question — these hypothetical measures would shrink the overall prison population by about 14 percent. (There isn’t data from BJS on the most serious charges faced by those in local jails, so let’s assume that no jail inmates are released in these scenarios.)

But let’s have some international context. Even in that extreme hypothetical situation, the U.S. would still be an incarceration outlier. Even without its many inmates who are convicted of drug charges, the U.S. still leads the world in imprisoning people. Next is the U.S. Virgin Islands, with a rate of 542 per 100,000 people, followed by Turkmenistan at 522 and Cuba at 510. Russia’s rate is 463. (See the bottom of this post for the full list of international incarceration rates. The international data is from the International Centre for Prison Studies, and I’ve restricted the list to countries with a population of at least 100,000.)

Locking up drug offenders is only part of the larger story behind mass incarceration. Other reasons for the high rates include the severity of nondrug sentencing, the attitudes of judges and prosecutors, a high rate of violent crime such as murder, and rising crime rates in the 1970s and 1980s. “The increase in U.S. incarceration rates over the past 40 years is preponderantly the result of increases both in the likelihood of imprisonment and in lengths of prison sentences,” the National Research Council wrote in a report last year.

Reformers interested in ending mass incarceration — or at least in getting America’s rates in line with those internationally — will have to think far more broadly.this interactive at The Marshall Project.

">1 It’s a much thornier problem than that.
U.S. 725
U.S. (without federal drug offenders) 693
U.S. (without all drug offenders) 625
Virgin Islands (U.S.) 542
Turkmenistan 522
Cuba 510
Rwanda 492
El Salvador 465
Russian Federation 463
Thailand 452
Belize 449
Grenada 430
Guam (U.S.) 422
Panama 392
Bahamas 379
St. Vincent and the Grenadines 378
Trinidad and Tobago 362
Costa Rica 352
Belarus 335
Puerto Rico (U.S.) 335
St. Lucia 321
Barbados 318
Lithuania 315
Maldives 304
Brazil 301
South Africa 292
Iran 290
Swaziland 289
Cape Verde (Cabo Verde) 286
Curaçao (Netherlands) 285
Uruguay 282
Georgia 281
Kazakhstan 275
Mongolia 274
Taiwan 269
Guyana 264
Latvia 264
French Guiana/Guyane (France) 261
Colombia 242
Chile 240
Israel 240
Peru 236
Martinique (France) 234
Dominican Republic 233
Aruba (Netherlands) 233
United Arab Emirates 229
Samoa (formerly Western Samoa) 227
Tunisia 225
Morocco 221
Singapore 220
Estonia 218
Azerbaijan 218
Mexico 214
Moldova 212
Turkey 212
Gabon 210
Poland 198
Albania 198
Honduras 196
Ukraine 195
Suriname 194
Czech Republic 191
New Zealand 190
Macau (China) 189
Botswana 188
Slovakia 187
Kyrgyzstan 182
Hungary 180
Bahrain 175
New Caledonia (France) 172
Fiji 171
Montenegro 170
Venezuela 166
Algeria 162
Ecuador 162
Saudi Arabia 161
Malaysia 161
Mauritius 160
Uzbekistan 160
French Polynesia (France) 158
Paraguay 158
Vietnam 154
Argentina 154
Nicaragua 152
Australia 151
Tonga 151
Romania 148
United Kingdom: England & Wales 148
Zimbabwe 145
Jamaica 145
Namibia 144
United Kingdom: Scotland 144
Bhutan 143
Spain 141
Serbia 140
Macedonia 140
Brunei Darussalam 139
Bulgaria 138
Portugal 137
Malta 135
Bolivia 134
Iraq 133
Armenia 132
Equatorial Guinea 132
Tajikistan 121
Greece 120
China 119
Kenya 119
Guatemala 117
Zambia 117
Reunion (France) 117
Kiribati 115
Cameroon 115
Hong Kong (China) 114
Myanmar 113
Philippines 113
Luxembourg 112
Ethiopia 111
Uganda 110
Lebanon 108
Lesotho 107
Canada 106
Belgium 105
Angola 105
Micronesia, Federated States of 103
Republic of (South) Korea 101
France 100
Sao Tome e Principe 100
Libya 99
Cambodia 98
Haiti 97
Austria 96
Jordan 95
Cyprus (Republic of) 94
United Kingdom: Northern Ireland 93
Kosovo 93
Sri Lanka 92
Croatia 91
Kuwait 86
Italy 85
Burundi 85
Switzerland 84
Madagascar 83
Afghanistan 83
Ireland, Republic of 82
Mayotte (France) 80
Bosnia and Herzegovina: Federation 80
Benin 77
Egypt 76
Germany 76
Vanuatu 76
Netherlands 75
Slovenia 73
Tanzania 73
Malawi 72
Norway 71
Bosnia and Herzegovina: Republika Srpska 71
Laos 71
Indonesia 66
South Sudan 65
Djibouti 63
Togo 63
Senegal 62
Mozambique 62
Denmark 62
Sierra Leone 61
Sweden 60
Syria 60
Finland 57
Yemen 53
Qatar 53
Ghana 53
Nepal 52
Papua New Guinea 52
Sudan 50
Solomon Islands 49
Japan 49
Gambia 48
Iceland 45
Bangladesh 45
Liberia 43
Mauritania 43
Cote d’Ivoire 43
Pakistan 41
Niger 40
Chad 39
Timor-Leste 38
Oman 36
Democratic Republic of Congo 35
India 33
Burkina Faso 33
Congo (Brazzaville) 33
Mali 32
Nigeria 32
Comoros 28
Republic of Guinea 22
Central African Republic 19


  1. You can see for yourself the difficulty of cutting the prison population with this interactive at The Marshall Project.

Oliver Roeder was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight. He holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Texas at Austin, where he studied game theory and political competition.