CRIME
10/22/2014 05:27 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Which US States Imprison More People Per Capita Than Russia Or China?

Both Russia and China's prisons are frequent targets for bad press in the United States.

But by one important measure, both countries are far less draconian than several states in America.

Russia has 475 inmates per 100,000 residents as of 2013, according to data from the Sentencing Project. China has 121.

Those numbers are much lower than states like Louisiana (893 per 100,000) Mississippi (717) and Alabama (650) based on 2012 statistics from the same report. Oklahoma (648) and Texas (601) are also significantly higher than Russia or China.

The Clarion-Ledger reported this week that Mississippi's number is now much higher. Based on statistics provided by the International Centre for Prison Studies and the Prison Policy Initiative, Mississippi had 1,155 per 100,000 residents in 2013.

"A very significant percentage of the prisoners in Mississippi are locked up as a direct result of untreated serious mental illness, or substance abuse, or both," Margaret Winter, associate director of the ACLU's National Prison Project, said in an email to the Huffington Post. They are "locked up for many years, some for decades or for life, in hellish conditions, without any meaningful opportunity for treatment or rehabilitation."

Winter added, "That doesn’t make the community one bit safer, it only tears apart families and communities and destroys lives."

Winter said politicians are eager to prove they are tough on crime with little regard for the conditions in which people are locked up.

"There’s a macho thing involved where they’re priding themselves on harsh sentences that make no sense in terms of doing something for the safety of the community or rehabilitation," Winter said. "It’s the same set-up in Alabama."

As the Ledger reports, this year Mississippi passed a bill designed to reduce the prison population. It gives judges more leeway to give offenders sentences like rehabilitation or other punishments that don't involve time behind bars.

Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps told the Ledger he's "happy the Legislature and governor have searched for ways to reduce prison population while being protective of the community."

Gov. Phil Bryant echoed those sentiments when the bill was passed in March.

"We pledged to Mississippians that we would make this the ‘public safety session’, and we have worked hard to develop this ‘Right on Crime’ research-based plan that is tough on crime while using resources wisely where they make the most impact," Bryant said in a press release. "As a former law enforcement officer, I have no tolerance for career criminals or violent offenders, and this legislation will allow Mississippi the resources to hold these offenders accountable."

But Winter said there's "much more to be done" in terms of reforming the prison system in Mississippi.

"Some change is better than nothing," Winter said. "But it was very mild reform."

She points to three examples of what she says are the state's overly harsh policies in action. From her email:

-A seventeen-year-old youth is currently serving 30 years – two 15 year-sentences consecutively-- for sale of two rocks of crack cocaine.

-A man was recently sentenced under the habitual offender law to mandatory life without parole -- for fleeing police, which is an offense that normally carries a five-year sentence. That 5-year sentence became under Mississippi’s habitual offender law because he had two prior offenses --for cocaine possession and a car-jacking that he committed as a teenager.

-The Mississippi Supreme Court recently affirmed a mandatory life-without-parole sentence under the habitual offender statute for possession of two crack rocks (in an amount of more than 0.1 gram, less than 2)

But Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama are not the only states with ballooning inmate populations. Overall, the U.S. incarcerates about 25 percent of the world's prisoners even though the country itself holds only 5 percent of the world's population.

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