America has been turned into a nation of prisons thanks primarily to the drug war and mandatory minimum sentences. A new extensive report from the National Research Council looks at the size, cost, and cause of the American prison system and it is not pretty.

Five key findings from this report show the shocking extent of the problem:

  • With the inclusion of local jails, the U.S. penal population totals 2.2 million adults, the largest in the world; the U.S. has nearly one-quarter of the world’s prisoners, but only 5 percent of its population.
  • Nearly 1 in 100 adults is in prison or jail, which is 5 to 10 times higher than rates in Western Europe and other democracies.
  • Of those incarcerated in 2011, about 60 percent were black or Hispanic.
  • Black men under age 35 who did not finish high school are more likely to be behind bars than employed in the labor market.
  • In 2009, 62 percent of black children 17 or younger whose parents had not completed high school had experienced a parent being sent to prison, compared with 17 percent for Hispanic children and 15 percent for white children with similarly educated parents.

The incredible growth in the prison population has put a huge burden on government budgets. The rate of spending on corrections has basically outpaced everything else from education to public assistance.

It has also created a massive personal burden for millions of Americans. In 1980 roughly 350,000 American children had a father who was incarcerated; by 2010 that number had risen to 2.1 million.

If you are interested you can read the whole report here for free, but if you don’t have time I think this one graph and one line from the report perfectly captures the impact of the drug war on turning Americans into a prison nation.  From 1980 to 2010 there was a 10 fold increase in drug incarceration rate:

From the report:  “The rate of incarceration for the single category of drug-related offenses, excluding local jails and federal prisons, by itself exceeds by 50 percent the average incarceration rate for all crimes of Western European countries and is twice the average incarceration rate for all crimes, including pretrial detainees, of a significant number of European countries.”

While the incarceration rate for most crimes has increased, the drug war has clearly been the biggest driver.

Jon Walker is the author of After Legalization: Understanding the future of marijuana policy