Watch the U.S. prison population explode

Politicians promise to be tough on crime, and boy are they ever — at least according to prison statistics. The number of people serving time in state or federal prison has risen at a shocking rate, quintupling over the past 30 years.

Statistics maintained by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics illustrate that growth. In 1978, just 307,276 prisoners were under the jurisdiction of state or federal correctional authorities. In 1994, the prison population topped 1 million for the first time. In 2012, the last year for which statistics are available, more than 1.5 million prisoners were behind bars.

The imprisonment rate skyrocketed as well. Back in 1978, 131 people per 100,000 were locked up. In 2012, 480 people per 100,000 are behind bars, more than a three-fold increase.

Here’s what that growth looks like, controlling for population, from our friends at @MetricMaps:


Graphic credit: @MetricMaps

Some states stand out for massive explosions in prison populations. Arizona had just under 4,000 prisoners in the late 1970s. By 2012, 40,000 Arizonans were behind bars, a tenfold increase. Idaho went from 802 prisoners in 1978 to 7,985 in 2012, almost a 10 percent gain. Nevada and New Hampshire spiked nearly as high.

Every state saw its prison population at least double. On the lower end of the spectrum, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, New York, North Carolina and South Carolina all kept their prison populations under three times their levels in 1978.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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