The United States jails more prisoners than any nation on earth — about 2.3 million, or more than 1 percent of all American adults. Our gigantic penal system is regularly characterized as a national disgrace. I've applied the label myself.
Plainly there is something deeply disquieting about a democratic superpower locking up so many people that 25 percent of the world's reported prisoners are housed in US cells. How can a country with an incarceration rate of 716 inmates per 100,000 residents, roughly five times the global average, think of itself as "The Land of the Free?"
Yet whether America's vast prison population really represents such a scandalous failure depends on what prison is supposed to do. In that light, consider a trove of data released last month by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, an agency of the US Department of Justice.
In the first major federal study of recidivism since 1994, BJS statisticians tracked nearly 405,000 inmates in 30 states who were released from prison in 2005. Within six months, 28 percent of those freed prisoners had been arrested for a new crime. After three years, 68 percent had been arrested. By the end of the five years (the period covered by the study), the percentage had grown to a whopping 77 percent.
The report breaks down these new crimes by category. Five years after regaining their freedom, 29 percent of the prisoners had been arrested for a violent offense, 38 percent for a property crime, 39 percent for a drug offense, and 58 percent for public-order offenses. (Many released inmates were arrested on multiple charges.) Only 23 states could provide researchers with complete data on inmates who returned to prison; but among the released prisoners in those states, more than half — 55 percent — ended up behind bars once more.