The U.S. has under 5 percent of the world's population but almost a quarter of its prisoners, 2.3 million people. The New York Times notes that Americans are locked up for crimes, from writing bad checks to using drugs, that rarely would lead to prison sentences in other countries. They are kept incarcerated far longer than prisoners in other nations.
The U.S. has 751 people in prison or jail for every 100,000 in population. The only other major industrialized nation that even comes close is Russia, with 627 prisoners for every 100,000 people. The others have much lower rates. England's rate is 151; Germany's is 88; and Japan's is 63. The high U.S. incarceration rate has helped drive down crime, though there is debate about how much. Among factors that explain the extraordinary U.S. incarceration rate: higher levels of violent crime, harsher sentencing laws, a legacy of racial turmoil, a fervor in combating illegal drugs, the “American temperament,” and the lack of a social safety net. Judges, many of whom are elected, another American anomaly – yield to populist demands for tough justice.