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PolitiFact VA: How does the United States' Incarceration Rate Stack Up Historically?

Carter speaking
Del. Lee Carter claimed the U.S. incarcerates more people than any nation in history as part of his push for criminal justice reform. (Photo: Craig Carper/VPM News)

Speaker: Lee Carter
Statement: “We incarcerate more of our people than any other nation in history.”
Date: Dec. 10
Setting: Tweet

Del. Lee Carter, a self-proclaimed socialist mulling a run for governor next year, is calling for sweeping criminal justice reform.

“We incarcerate more of our people than any other nation in history, and second place isn't even close,” Carter, D-Manassas, tweeted on Dec. 10. 

“We need a governor who will dramatically reduce our spending on police, our spending on prisons and jails, and our prison population,” he added. “None of the frontrunners are promising that.”

We fact-checked Carter’s eye-popping claim that the U.S. imprisons more people than any nation in history and found that he’s wrong. Let’s take a look.

Current numbers:
The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reported this summer that in 2018, 2.1 million people were serving time in federal and state prisons, and local jails.

We flipped to a different source to get global numbers: the World Prison Brief compiled by the Institute for Crime & Justice Policy Research at the University of London. It shows China had the second-highest prison population in 2018, with 1.7 million sentenced people behind bars. 

But, China’s incarcerated population could very well be higher, the institute notes. Chinese government officials reported in 2009 that more than 650,000 people were being held in detention centers around China on top of the count for sentenced prisoners. If that number was the same in 2018, China’s total number of prisoners  would be 2.35 million and exceed the U.S. count.

Of course, China - with 1.4 billion people - is more than four times larger than the U.S., which has a population of 328 million. Instead of examining raw numbers of prisoners, a more meaningful measure would be to look at incarceration rates. And here, the U.S. is clearly the known world leader (data from North Korea is not available).

Out of every 100,000 people, the U.S. has 639 in jail. El Salvador is second, with 565. China is way down the list, with 121 sentenced prisoners per 100,000. Even if it still has the same number of unsentenced inmates as 2009, it’s rate would still pale in comparison to the U.S. at 168 per 100,000.

So, if we use raw numbers, the U.S. appears to have the most inmates in the world and is no lower than second; if we measure by incarceration rates, the U.S. has the highest known percentage of its population behind bars. Carter texted us backup for his claim that used both measurements.

Is it historic?
But there’s another issue to consider: Carter says the U.S. has more prisoners than any nation in history. 

As a flier, we compared the United States' incarceration numbers to those of the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin. Figures since released by Russia show the Gulag population was higher than the United States’ current 2.1 million inmate population at the start of every year from 1948 to 1953. It peaked in 1950 at almost 2.6 million. The prison rate that year would have been about 1,430 people per 100,000 - more than double the latest U.S. rate.

We searched for China’s prison populations under Mao Zedong, but could not find data.

Our ruling:
Carter tweeted, “We incarcerate more of our people than any other nation in history.”

There’s no doubt that the U.S. locks ‘em up. It has the highest known incarceration rate in the world, and the most or second most number of inmates. This is an important fact during a year of debate and protest over racial justice in the U.S.

But Carter detracts from his call for reform by saying the U.S. has more inmates than any nation in history. We know, at least ,  the Soviet Union under Stalin had higher prison populations and rates. 

So we rate Carter’s statement False.

Del. Lee Carter, Twitter, Dec. 10, 2020.
Text interview with Carter, Dec. 13, 2020.
Bureau of Justice Statistics, “ Correctional Populations in the United States, 2017-2018,” published Aug. 2020, Table 1.
Institute for Crime & Justice Policy Research, “ World Prison Brief,” accessed Dec. 13, 2020.
Radio Free Europe, “ The Gulag Through the Years,” accessed Dec. 14, 2020.
Anne Applebaum, “Gulag,” published 2003 (appendix).

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