The incarceration rate in the U.S. is ridiculous, but it wasn’t always like this.
The 1970s kicked-off the ‘tough on crime’ and ‘war on drugs’ period, which has had such an impact that the U.S. now has the highest prisoner rate in the world (discounting Seychelles), and currently stands at over 4 times the OECD average¹. In fact, the U.S.’s willingness to imprison its people is so out of step with the rest of the world that it now hosts almost a quarter of the entire world’s prisoners².
Yet, the incarceration rate of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is more than twice³ the rate of the U.S. … and growing!
The first graph has been doing the rounds for the last couple of years, and shows how the U.S.’s willingness to imprison its population has changed over the last few decades.
The second graph compares the American rate to that of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia.
How bad is the crime situation in Australia that has lead to this?
 Comparisons across international jurisdictions are more complicated. Generally the ABS figures for rate of imprisonment is based on all people in jail per 100,000 adults. The US figures in the historical data presented here, however, only include ‘prisoners sentenced for 1 year or more’. The graph provided shows comparable data, based on the same variables. The relevant Australian figures for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are derived using data in Table 10 of ABS’s Prison publication linked below.
U.S. Data for 1925 to1977 from http://www.albany.edu/sourcebook/pdf/section6.pdf
U.S. Data 1978 to 2014 from http://www.bjs.gov/ – Corrections Statistical Analysis Tool (CSAT) – Prisoners
Prisoner publication 2005 to 2015 – please request derived figures. Planning to have datasets available online in future.
4: Picture used with CC authority, thanks to: www.flickr.com/photos/marineperez/4698707308
Picture changed to highlight that 1 in 3 people in Australia’s jails are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander.