Bruce Murphy
Back in the News

State Imprisons More People Than Any Nation

Wisconsin ranks 24th among states but is more punitive than every nation in the world.

By - Sep 8th, 2021 01:28 pm
Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Suppose the state of Wisconsin were a nation. How would it compare to other countries in the number of people it imprisons?

Answer: Far more punitive than any other nation.

“States like Wisconsin may appear to have ‘average’ incarceration rates by U.S. standards,” notes a new study by the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI). “But next to other stable democracies, Wisconsin is off the charts.”

Indeed. Its incarceration rate of 663 per 100,000 people is more than five times higher than Great Britain (129), more than six times higher than Canada (104), seven times higher than France (93), nine times higher than Denmark (72) and 20 times higher than Iceland (33).

You could search the world and not find a country that imprisons as many people as Wisconsin. The only places more punitive are the 24 states in America with a higher rate than Wisconsin. At the very top is Louisiana, which has been dubbed “the world’s prison capital,” with 1,094 per 100,000 people imprisoned, though Mississippi (1,031) and Oklahoma (993) are not far behind.

Wisconsin is almost exactly at the national average for the U.S., and ahead of 25 states, with a rate more than twice as high as that of Massachusetts (275), and nearly double that of Minnesota (342), which ranked lowest in the Midwest.

Thus, all the report’s conclusions about the U.S. apply equally to its most average state, Wisconsin.

“When we compare U.S. states and other nations in terms of both ‘violent crime’ and incarceration, we find ourselves more closely aligned with nations with authoritarian governments or recently large-scale internal armed conflicts,” the report notes. “Rather than any of the founding NATO member countries traditionally compared to the United States, the only countries that approach the incarceration rate… of the 50 states are El Salvador, Panama, Peru, and Turkey. Every U.S. state, and the United States as a nation, is an outlier in the global context.”

“This disparity is not explainable by differences in crime,” the report notes. “South Africa, Panama, Costa Rica, and Brazil all have murder rates more than double that of the U.S. Yet the U.S., ‘the land of the free,’ tops them all.”

The group has previously done research documenting the explosion in mass incarceration in the U.S. since the 1980s. Similar research by the Vera Institute found the rate of incarceration grew more than four-fold. In Wisconsin, the report found the number of people locked up rose from 7.269 people in 1983 to 35,835 in 2015, a nearly five-fold increase.

“For decades the U.S. has been engaged in a globally unprecedented experiment to make every part of its criminal justice system more expansive and more punitive,” the new report by the PPI notes. “As a result, incarceration has become the nation’s default response to crime, with, for example, 70 percent of convictions resulting in confinement — far more than other developed nations with comparable crime rates… Today, there is finally serious talk of change, but little action that would bring the United States to an incarceration rate on par with other stable democracies.”

The Prison Policy Initiative is a non-partisan non-profit group whose mission is to produce research “to expose the broader harm of mass criminalization and advocate for “a more just society.”

2 thoughts on “Back in the News: State Imprisons More People Than Any Nation”

  1. Maryg says:

    Another pox on our has been proven over and over again that incarcerating people is not a deterrent to crime…we can’t seem to see the forest for the trees…and it is so costly

  2. NieWiederKrieg says:

    Germany has free health care, free college, 5 weeks paid vacation from the government every year, the #1 economy on Earth, strong labor unions, no poverty, no homeless people, very little crime, no wars, and an extremely small prison population.

    America is the exact opposite of Germany.

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