A report released by the justice department on Nov. 30 reported 1 in every 32 American adults -- or a record 7 million people -- were incarcerated, on probation or on parole at the end of 2005, with 2.2 million of them in prison or jail. The International Center for Prison Studies at King's College, London reported that this number was the highest of any country, with China ranking second with 1.5 million prisoners, and Russia sitting in third with 870,000. The United States also has the highest incarceration rate at 737 per 100,000 people, compared to nearest country Russia's 611 per 100,000 and St. Kitts and Nevis' 547.
Groups calling for U.S. sentencing law reform are pointing to these numbers and others that show inmate populations are rising faster than prisoners are released.
"The United States has 5 percent of the world's population and 25 percent of the world's incarcerated population. We rank first in the world in locking up our fellow citizens," said Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance, which supports alternatives in the war on drugs. "We now imprison more people for drug law violations than all of Western Europe, with a much larger population, incarcerates for all offenses."
Ryan King, a policy analyst at The Sentencing Project, said that about 2 million of the 7 million in prison, on probation or on parole were drug offenders. He added that other countries tend to focus on treatment over incarceration, but the United States has a more punitive legal system than other countries.
"We send more people to prison, for more different offenses, for longer periods of time than anybody else," he said.
"The criminal justice system in the United States is broken," said Mike Adams, an ethicist and author of "How to End Cruelty to Animals, People and Nature." "You don't create safer communities by rounding up increasing numbers of people for committing victimless crimes.
"In the United States, we have an excess of laws and knee-jerk minimum sentencing laws combined with a militant-style Drug War that is neither effective nor compassionate. Our outdated and ineffective drug laws have turned millions of ordinary citizens into criminals and declared law enforcement success as a result," he said.
King said the prison figures also draw attention to the failure of several social programs, such as the ones that cover education, poverty, urban development, health care and childcare.
"There are a number of social programs we have failed to deliver. There are systemic failures going on," he said. "A lot of these people then end up in the criminal justice system."
Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in California, disagreed, saying that the numbers showed a proper response to the U.S. crime problem, and that the higher incarceration rates have contributed to lower crime rates.
"The hand-wringing over the incarceration rate is missing the mark," he said. "We have more crime (than other nations). More crime gets you more prisoners."
However, Families Against Mandatory Minimums President Julie Stewart said the Justice Department figures showed that drug offenders are causing a clog the U.S. justice system.
"Why are so many people in prison?" she said. "Blame mandatory sentencing laws and the record number of nonviolent drug offenders subject to them."