Welcome to the Age of Incarceration
The number first appeared in headlines earlier this year: Nearly one in four of all prisoners worldwide is incarcerated in America. It was just the latest such statistic. Today, one in nine African American men between the ages of 20 and 34 is locked up. In 1970, our prisons held fewer than 200,000 people; now that number exceeds 1.5 million, and when you add in local jails, it's 2.3 million—1 in 100 American adults.
There are many people behind bars who you would not want as yourneighbor, but in our hunger for justice we have lost perspective. Wetreat 10-year sentences like they're nothing, like that's a softpenalty, when in much of the rest of the world a decade behind barswould be considered extraordinarily severe. This is what separates usfrom other industrialized countries: It's not just that we send so manypeople to prison, but that we keep them there for so long and send themback so often. Eight years ago, we surpassed Russia to claim thedubious distinction of having the world's highest rate of incarceration; today we're still No. 1.