With a population of 2.4 million people behind bars, the United States is the incarceration capital of the world. Commonly referred to as mass incarceration, the oft-discussed phenomenon has largely been driven by state punitive policies, which have grown increasingly strict in recent years, but what is less understood is how prison rates and practices vary so greatly from state to state.
More than half of U.S. prisoners are currently held in state facilities, but while Louisiana imprisons 858 people per 100,000 residents and allows for the death penalty, Maine imprisons only 133 and abolished executions in 1887. So the question is: What makes one state act tougher on crime, and therefore become a greater contributor to mass imprisonment, than another?
According to research by Rice University, the answer comes down to race. In a new study that looks at how social, economic and political factors affect state punitiveness, researchers found that a state’s African-American population was the strongest predictor of harsher prison policies, regardless of the crime rate. Specifically, states with larger black communities were more likely to have stricter incarceration practices, such as minimum sentences for various offenses, worse confinement conditions and tougher approaches toward juveniles. (vocativ)