64 percent of jail inmates, 54 percent of state prisoners and 45
percent of federal prisoners reporting mental health concerns,
the report found. Substance abuse is also rampant and often
“Part of what’s really swelled our jail and prison population,
especially our jail population, is our inability to deal with the
mental health crisis that we’re facing in this country,” says
Tangney. “We have an enormous number of people who are
suffering from very treatable illnesses who are not getting
treatment and who end up getting caught in the criminal justice
The rise in incarceration rates has also disproportionately
affected minority populations, the report found. In 2011, for ex-
ample, about 40 percent of those behind bars were black, although
African Americans and others of African descent make up only
13. 2 percent of the U.S. population, one study found. Hispanics
also were over-represented in prison, at 20 percent of the prison
population compared with 17. 1 percent of the U.S. population.
The report notes that such disparities in sentencing were
caused partly by more severe laws and the war on drugs, as well
as “small but systematic racial differences in case processing.”
For instance, blacks were more likely to be incarcerated before
trial, to fare worse in plea agreements that might otherwise
have kept them out of prison, to receive the death penalty, and
to be arrested and charged with drug crimes, which carry stiff
mandatory sentences, the report found.
People of color also are more likely to suffer disparities in
mental health treatment in general, which results in their being
“more likely to be ushered into the criminal justice system,”
Even within the United States, crime rates have varied while
says Tiffany Townsend, PhD, senior director of ethnic minority
affairs in APA’s Public Interest Directorate.
“The rise in incarceration transformed not only the criminal
justice system, but also U.S. race relations and the institutional
landscape of urban poverty,” the report notes.
Yet while some studies show U.S. crime dropped as
incarceration rates went up, the report found no causal link
between the two, Haney says. “It’s very clear from our analysis
that the reduction in the overall amount of crime is only
modestly if at all attributable to the high rate of incarceration,”
he says, pointing to other countries that have experienced less
crime — without high rates of incarceration.
the incarceration rate has shot up. For example, the number of
people in prison for drugs is 10 times higher today than it was 30
to 40 years ago, yet the amount of drug crime hasn’t changed.
The psychological impact of prison
In prison, inmates face a variety of challenges that affect their
ability to become productive members of society once they leave
confinement, the report says. Vocational training and educational
programs have not been used as widely as they could be, while
re-entry programs and other transitions to the community need
improving, the report found. In addition, imprisonment can
create or exacerbate mental health conditions.
While at least half of prisoners have some mental health
concerns, about 10 percent to 25 percent of U.S. prisoners suffer
from serious mental illnesses, such as major affective disorders
or schizophrenia, the report finds. That compares with an
average rate of about 5 percent for serious mental illness in the
U.S. population in general. Dependence on drugs, alcohol or
1960 1963 1966 1969 1972 1975 1978 1981 1984 1987 1990 1993 1996 1999 2002 2005 2008
Motor vehicle theft (x/2)
(federal and state)
Source: “The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences,” The National Research Council, 2014.
Crime and imprisonment rates 1960–2008