Did you know that the U.S. has a higher imprisonment rate than even Russia?  And the U.S. imprisonment rate is about six times that of many European countries. 

(This first figure was made by Kieran Healy.)

When and how did this happen?  It started in the 1980s with Reagan’s “war on drugs.”  The figure below shows the increase in the incarceration rate beginning in the 1980s (# of people out of 100,000).

So our imprisonment rate is the result of imprisoning people who break drug laws, NOT violent criminals or even people who commit property crimes.  The increase is largely due to more aggressive policing of drug law violations. 

And, as you can see in the figure below, the aggressive policing of drug law violations can be found disproportionately in black neighborhoods.  (White and black people take drugs at a very similar rate, but black neighborhoods are more heavily policing and drugs more common among blacks than white have carried heavier sentences — i.e., crack versus cocaine until recently).  This figure shows that the increase in the incarceration rate is mostly an increase in the black incarceration rate. 

Thanks to the amazing Pam Oliver for reminding me that this last graph comes from her work on the incarceration rate (found here).