Reforming American Criminal Justice:

Prisons, Inmates, and Re-Entry Success

Ronald L. Krannich, Ph.D.

Why does America house 25% of the world’s prisoners, spend over $100 billion a year on prisons, and still deliver the world’s worst outcomes – 70% recidivism rate and extreme collateral damage on individuals, families and communities, including correctional personnel? Maybe it has something to do with a “punishment mindset.” Let’s speak truth about “the facts” that both define and disparage the American criminal justice system.

A Troubled Criminal Justice System 

The United States operates the world’s largest, costliest, and most dysfunctional criminal justice system. Representing nearly 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. houses 25% of the world’s prisoners. It’s also home to 33% of the world’s female prisoners. Over 77 million citizens have an arrest record, and millions circulate in and out of correctional facilities each year. Arresting and locking up millions of people, the U.S. has developed a sordid reputation as an “Arrested Society” and “Incarcerated Nation.” 

Criminal justice and incarceration in the U.S. are big businesses — especially for lawyers, private prison operators, the bail bond industry, privatized probation services, telephone companies, prison suppliers, prison industries, and “weekend cops” who have a vested interest maintaining the status quo. Not surprising, it’s very difficult to change a system that is also politically entrenched through lobbying and campaign contribution activities.

20 More Costly and Sobering Facts 

  1. 707 out of 100,000 U.S. adults are locked up – highest percentage in the world
  2. 2.3 million are caged in U.S. federal and state prisons
  3. 11-12 million circulate in and out of jails, detention centers, and prisons each year
  4. America’s correctional complex (7,400 institutions) includes:
  • 1,719 state prisons (1.3+ million inmates)
  • 102 federal prisons (200,000+ inmates)
  • 2,259 juvenile correctional facilities (55,000 juveniles)
  • 3,283 local jails (800,000+ inmates)
  • 9 Indian Country jails
  • several military brigs and confinement facilities
  1. Federal and state prisons, which normally house 500 to 5,000 inmates, are home to a disproportionate number of immigrants, violent criminals, the mentally ill, and some really bad people
  2. Annual release rates vary by correctional complex, but 95% of prisoners are eventually released:
  • 700,000 ex-offenders released from state and federal prisons
  • 9 million released from fast revolving jails/detention centers
  • 5 million+ are on parole or probation
  • 33% of annual prison admissions are parole violators 
  1. Largest and most notorious prisons include:
  • ADX (Administrative Maximum Facility or SuperMax) in Florence, CO – “The Alcatraz of the Rockies” (440 prisoners)
  • Louisiana State Penitentiary (“Angola” or “The Alcatraz of the South”) – largest prison in the U.S. – 6,800 inmates and 1,800 correctional personnel; 74% are “lifers
  • San Quentin State Prison – 3,302 inmates with 704 on death row
  • Attica Correctional Facility – 2,150 inmates
  • Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary – 2,000 inmates
  • Folsom State Prison – 1,913 inmates
  • U.S. Penitentiary Marion – 1,000 inmates
  1. Largest jails (literally cities within cities)
  • Los Angeles Jail – 19,836 (serves over 50,000 meals a day!)
  • Rikers Island (NY) Jail – 10,949 inmates/10,500 staff
  • Cook County (Chicago) Jail – 9,514
  • Harris County (Houston) Jail – 8,511
  • Philadelphia Jail – 8,318  
  1. $250 billion spent annually to operate America’s criminal justice systemBest Resumes and Letters for Ex-Offenders: The Ultimate Rap Sheet-to-Resume Guide for People With Not-So-Hot Backgrounds (2nd Edition)
  2. $80 billion spent annually on incarceration
  3. Collateral damage/costs to individuals, families, and communities are simply incalculable – think trillions of dollars!
  4. New York City spends $208,000 per year to jail someone – elsewhere it’s usually under $100,000 per detainee (Guantanamo Base — $4.5 million spent per year per prisoner!)
  5. The U.S. spends over $100 billion caging prisoners, 70% of whom are drug offenders
  6. Ex-offenders entering the Free World have several strikes against them:
  • 75% have substance abuse problems
  • 70% are high school dropouts
  • 50% are functionally illiterate
  • 21% have a work-related disability
  • 18% have Hepatitis C
  • 15% have a mental illness (however, some experts estimate 70% of incarcerated women and 55-60% of incarcerated men have a mental illness
  • 12% report a vision or hearing problem
  • 7% have a tuberculosis infection
  • 4% show signs of PTSD
  • 3% are HIV-positive or have AIDS
  • 3% participate in work-release programs
  1. Nearly 70% of released prisoners become repeat offenders (many due to minor parole violations)
  2. Over 70% of U.S. prisoners are serving time for nonviolent offenses – expect more violent offenders due to changes in court system/sentencing practices (drug courts, mental health courts, etc.)
  3. 34% of the nearly 500,000 correctional officers have PTSD (mainly untreated) –125% higher than combat veterans; they also have the highest suicide rate of any profession – twice as high as police.
  4. Private prisons (155) – manage 8% of all inmates (133,000). Mainly operating at the state level, the three major players are CoreCivic (66), GEO Group (65), and Management and Training Group (24). The verdict is still out on these controversial “privatized prisons.”  
  5. Veterans – constitute about 8% of prison population – 180,000 inmates. Nearly 1 million circulate in and out of jails and prisons each year. Several states now have special treatment and re-entry programs designed for assisting veteran populations.
  6. 2.7 million children in the U.S. have at least one incarcerated parent.

Resources for Making a Difference 

But there’s good news to report that gives renewed hope for a brighter criminal justice future. Incremental moves toward criminal justice reform establishment of specialized courts (drug, mental health, veterans, juvenile), treatment and recovery programs, decriminalization and sentencing reform, bail bond reform, educational and vocational training, early release, community policing, and re-entry assistance — are making differences in the lives of millions of people caught up in the troubled criminal justice system.

As a center for criminal justice, correctional, and ex-offender re-entry resources, Impact Publications specializes in producing and distributing useful resources, from books and pocket guides to instruments, games, and videos. These resources are the focus of our latest Career and Re-Entry Success Catalog. Please browse through that catalog and the expanded Jobs, Careers & Re-Entry Success Catalog as well as this sampling of resources designed for making a difference in the lives of ex-offenders: