|Baltimore Sun via Charleston Post and Courier: With a record-setting 2 million people now locked up in American jails and prisons, the United States has overtaken Russia and has a higher percentage of its citizens behind bars than any other country.
United States imprisons at a far greater rate than developed Western nations and many impoverished and authoritarian countries. On a per capita basis, according to the best available figures, the United States has three times more prisoners than Iran, four times more than Poland, five times more than Tanzania and seven times more than Germany.
Bruce Western, a sociologist at Princeton University, says sentencing policies have had a glaringly disproportionate impact on black men. The Justice Department reports that one in eight black men in their 20s and early 30s were behind bars last year, compared with 1 in 63 white men. The chance of a black man going to prison in his lifetime is one in three, the department says.
A major cause is the war on drugs. In 1980, says Marc Mauer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project in Washington, about 40,000 Americans were locked up for drugs-only offenses. Now the number is 450,000, three-fourths of them black or Latino, though drug use is no higher in those groups than among whites.