These 5 Shocking Charts Prove America Is Anything But 'The Land Of The Free'

These 5 Shocking Charts Prove America Is Anything But ‘The Land Of The Free’

Let’s start with the basics, most people know that the United States is the world champion when it comes to mass incarceration. It has the highest percentage of its population behind bars in the world (well second to the Seychelles). So how did the US achieved top dog status?  Here are a few more charts that might offer some insight.

Prisoner population rate per 100,000 population by country

File:Prisoner population rate world map.svg

Image by Delphi234 via Creative Commons (from data from World Prison Brief)

Getting tough on crime

The climbing rate of incarceration in the United States has often been traced back to the beginning of the “tough on crime” era, as Human Rights Watch points out:

In the 1980s, state and federal legislators began to adopt “tough-on-crime” laws in response to rising crime rates, racial tensions, the emergence of crack cocaine, supposed threats to “traditional values” from counterculture movements, and fears of perceived increases in numbers of immigrants and youth offenders.


U.S. State and Federal Prison Population, 1925-2013The Sentencing Project: ‘Incarceration’

It has since become the only response for most politicians to deal with a variety of social challenges.

Americans spend more on prison than on education

Graphic: Tal Yellin / CNNMoney

As pointed out by CNN money, the US spends more on its prisoners on than on students. Of course, prisoners are supported twenty four hours a day during incarceration and should have proper care during that time, but there are important connections between incarceration and education. Given how much states are willing to invest in prisoners shouldn’t they be willing to invest more in education to prevent young people from becoming prisoners? And for those who think that free university tuition is an impossibility reducing incarceration rates could be the answer as one as a year in state prison could cost more than a year in an ivy league school.

Race still matters—a lot

Most people would not be surprised that by the many graphs that show that African-Americans and Latino-Americans are incarcerated at higher rates than white Americans, but they may be surprised to discover that even significant economic advantage does not erase this effect.  As reported in the Washington Post, a recent study from Duke University suggests that young people of color require a significant financial advantage just to be on par with their white counterparts.

The study basically suggests that a young African-American would have to come from a household with a minimum income of $69,000 to receive the same treatment in the criminal justice system as their poorest white counterpart. To tackle its incarceration problem,  the US needs to make strides in tackling its race problem.

Felon disenfranchisement

So you have been through the system, you’ve seen what has gone wrong and you want to elect leaders that can do something to change that. Unfortunately being a convicted felon makes it very unlikely that your voice will be heard.

An international comparison of 45 countries by shows that the US is out of step with other Western democracies when it comes to felon voter rights. While the rules vary from state to state and there  may be ways to regain voter rights after release from prison the process can be complicated. The rules vary from state to state, but as highlighted by the Sentencing Project, an estimated 5.85 million people are affected nationally.

U.S. Felony Disenfranchisement Laws by StateThe Sentencing Project: ‘Felony Disenfranchisement’

While many have been concerned about disenfranchisement by voter id laws felon disenfranchisement effects a significant population, mostly people of color and people from disadvantaged backgrounds. This is especially important for Democratic candidates who usually court these groups.

No Restriction
(felons can vote even while in prison)
Selective Restriction
(some felons may be banned from voting while in prison)
Complete Ban on Voting While in Prison
(felons can vote upon release from prison)
Postrelease Restrictions
(felons are banned from voting even after release from prison)
21 countries 14 countries 10 countries 4 countries
Includes: Austria, Canada, Denmark, Ireland Includes: France, Italy, Luxembourg Includes: Brazil, Bulgaria, Estonia, New Zealand United States, Chile, Belgium, Armenia

Nikita Oliver-Lew data from

Being the toughest on crime isn’t working

You can’t get much tougher on crime than the death penalty. The United States still has capital punishment which puts it in a prestigious club, as this Amnesty International graphic illustrates, alongside China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

Amnesty International  Report Death Sentences and Executions 2014

An here is a bonus chart: In spite of this extreme effort to take a hardline on crime that the death penalty does not actually deter murder. As this graph from the Death Penalty Information Centre shows murder rates are actually lower in non-death penalty states. Just being “tough on crime” is not an effective strategy to lower crime rates

States without the death penalty have lower murder rates
Death Penalty Information Centre Deterrence: States Without the Death Penalty Have Had Consistently Lower Murder Rates

Featured image by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

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A Canadian, currently located in Dublin, Nikita Oliver-Lew has an avid interest in all things political. She has an MSc in Comparative European Politics from Trinity College Dublin and hopes to return to her PhD studies on migration in Europe.