The news: Mass incarceration in America has been getting a bad rap recently, and for good reason. Though the U.S. only accounts for 5% of the global population, it accounts for a full quarter of the world's prisoners. The 2.4 million American people behind bars — the largest incarcerated population in the world — represent not only an immense financial burden on the country ($80 billion in 2010 alone), but also the failure of the criminal justice system.
New facts and figures paint an ever bleaker picture. Human Rights Watch released a report Tuesday titled "Nation Behind Bars: A Human Rights Solution," which, among other things, takes issue with the fact that more than half of prisoners are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses, such as low-level drug dealing.
"The 'land of the free' has become a country of prisons," said Jamie Fellner, a co-author in the report. "How can a country committed to liberty send minor dealers to die in prison for selling small amounts of illegal drugs to adults?"
According to the report, other causes for the incarceration epidemic include increased cases of youth being tried as adults, overly punitive immigration enforcement and the privatization of prisons, with private companies having the financial incentive to keep more people behind bars.
Here are some key facts from the report:
1. Between 1979 and 2009, the number of prisoners in state and federal facilities increased almost 430%.
2. Since 1980, the federal prison population has grown 721%.
3. In the last 29 years, the state prison population has grown over 240%.
Image Credit: Human Rights Watch
4. One of every nine people in prison — 159,000 people — is serving a life sentence.
5. As of 2009, some 2,500 people were serving life without parole sentences for crimes committed before age 18.
6. In 2011, more than 95,000 youth under the age of 18 were held in adult prisons and jails across the United States.
Image Credit: Human Rights Watch
7. More than half (53.4%) of prisoners in state prisons with a sentence of a year or longer are serving time for a nonviolent offense.
8. For every 100,000 Americans in each race or gender group, there are 478 white males, 3,023 black males, 51 white females and 129 black females incarcerated in state or federal prison.
9. Almost one-third of those serving life sentences (49,081 as of 2012) have been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole (LWOP).
10. Today, immigration offenses account for over 40% of all federal criminal prosecutions and almost 30% of new admissions to the federal prison system.
Image Credit: MSNBC
What can be done? The Obama administration has recently taken steps toward reducing mass incarceration. Last month, the Justice Department announced that presidential clemency will be extended to thousands of federal prisoners who would have received lighter sentences if they were tried today. Attorney General Eric Holder has also pledged that the federal government will not "automatically impose charges that lead to mandatory sentences on low-level, nonviolent drug offenders."
And there's another solution within reach: the Smarter Sentencing Act. The bill, which the Senate Judiciary Committee has approved, would reduce sentencing for drug-related offenses. The Obama administration supports it, and the House Judiciary Committee is currently debating it.