The United States is still leading the world in prison populations. An obvious question is “why?” I’m not a sociologist, but here are some possibilities:
First, it is often claimed that the United States has fairly harsh laws and sentencing relative to many other countries. For example, we tend to have very strict drug laws and disproportionate sentences for what seem to be minor drug offenses. That would tend to boost prison populations.
Second, the United States has long been accused of having a strong racist undercurrent (or main current). This would have numerous effects such as an increased likelihood that minorities would be put into prison as well as the creation of social conditions that would incline certain minorities towards crime. I’ve written about this before.
Third, it has been suggested that America’s immigration history is a factor. Those setting out to a new land would (the hypothesis goes) be more aggressive, more inclined to risk, and looking for opportunities. While these traits can lead people to do good things, they can also incline people towards certain criminal activities. These traits would be passed down (genetically or socially) and hence modern Americans would be more likely to have them then people in other countries.
Fourth, America is well known for having considerable social and economic inequality. This no doubt helps create more crime.
Fifth, American politicians long ago discovered the value of fear. It has become a tradition for many candidates to say how tough they will be on crime. This approach adds to the fear of crime (via advertising) and also makes it more likely that there will be more arrests and longer sentences (when the elected politician makes good on the promises). Hence, the increase in prison populations..
Sixth, prisons are big business in America. Those with a liking for conspiracy might suspect a link between the commercialization of prisons and the increase in prison populations. This seems unlikely, but does provide some matter for consideration.
Naturally, I am not claiming that these explanations are necessarily correct. However, they are worth further consideration and we do need to address this serious problem.