Incarceration and Inequality

Oklahoma: The highest per capita incarceration rate in the world

Oklahoma has the highest per capita incarceration rate of any place on the planet, higher than any country, continent, or any other state. More than 10 in 1,000 people in Oklahoma are in jail or prison, compared to 6 in 1,000 in El Salvador; 5 in 1,000 in Rwanda; and 4 in 1,000 in Russia. Overall, the US has an incarceration rate of about 7 in 1,000 people. What’s happening in Oklahoma?

Explosion in the prison population

Racism and incarceration: Worse than South Africa at the height of Apartheid

375 counties in the US have at least a 20x differential in the Black versus White incarceration rates. This means that for every 1 White person in prison, there are 20 Black people in prison, given equal overall population sizes.

Mental health and incarceration

37% of people in state and federal prisons have been diagnosed with a mental illness, yet 66% of those with diagnoses have reported not receiving any mental health care while imprisoned.

Private Prisons are NOT the problem

While policymakers make a lot of noise about private prisons, they are NOT a primary driver in mass incarceration. The private prison system may be an institution with misaligned incentives that benefits from mass incarceration, but private prisons are not driving the increase in imprisonment in America. Public prisons are the real drivers. The rise instead comes from public prisons.

The Path Forward

By ending mandatory minimum sentences, sending fewer people to jail for low-level offenses, and by improving bail reform efforts, many states can turn the page on mass incarceration. Connecticut, Michigan, Mississippi, Rhode Island, and South Carolina have reduced their prison populations between 14 and 25% over the past decade. Here are the lessons we can learn from them to decarcerate America.

  • Send fewer people to jail for drug offenses — 1 in 5 people is in jail for a drug offense. We need to first stop sending people to jail, particularly for low-level drug offenses. And second, we need to reduce the amount of time spent in jail if we do incarcerate people for these offenses. Estimates suggest that cutting lengths of stay 50% for drug trafficking offenses would reduce the federal prison population 18% over the next 8 years.
  • Improve bail reform efforts — 470,000 people are in jail right now who have not even been convicted of a crime. This means nearly half a million people are in jail who may have done nothing wrong. The pre-trial detention rate has increased 470% over the last 4 decades. The average cost of paying bail for a felony is $10,000-$12,000, and half of all the people who can’t post bail are parents. Defendants are 9x more likely to plead guilty to a misdemeanor if they can’t afford bail. We need to make bail more affordable by calculating bail based on a person’s ability to repay and using the Public Safety Assessment (PSA) to determine when costs are warranted and when bail can be fully removed.




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Jeremy Ney

Jeremy Ney

Google, MIT, Harvard, UPenn, Federal Reserve, now writing about inequality at

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