Thanks To The Drug War, We’re The World’s No. 1 Jailer


Thanks to the drug war, the United States is the world’s top jailer:

The chart above shows the breakdown of the current federal inmate population by type of offense, according to the most recent data from the Federal Bureau of Prisons. There are currently 90,043 Americans serving time in federal prisons for drug crimes, which is by far the No. 1 offense that results in a federal jail sentence (see chart). Drug offenders make up almost half (47.1%) of our federal inmate population of 218,171, and that helps explain why the US retains its status as the World’s No.1  Jailer with a prison population of 713 per 100,000 population, more than even any of the world’s most notorious and oppressive regimes like Myanmar (120 per 100,000 population), Cuba (510 per 100,000 population), and Iran (333 per 100,000). The only country that might challenge the US as the world’s No. 1 jailer is North Korea. Although information is limited, North Korea’s incarceration rate is estimated to be between 600-800 per 100,000 population.

We’re No. 1!!!!

FILED UNDER: Crime, Law and the Courts, , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Ben says:

    Now that’s some American exceptionalism, right there.

  2. stonetools says:

    It’s past time to call off this war on some minorities using some drugs. That would be a much bigger deal than anything NSA.

  3. Pinky says:

    These numbers don’t show what you’re saying they do. There are about 90000 federal prisoners being held for drug convictions. 90000 / 315000000 * 100000 equals about 29 prisoners per 100000 population, or about 4% of our total prison population. These numbers don’t take state prisoners into account.

  4. Pinky says:

    I just looked up <a href=""this press release and linked tables. According to Table 9, the estimated number of state prisoners serving drug sentences on Dec 31, 2010 was 237000. Adding them to the numbers cited in this article (which is imperfect, due to different dates), you still only get 100 prisoners per 100000. By comparison, we’ve got around 250 prisoners per 100000 serving time for violent crime. (If I’m reading these tables correctly.)

  5. Caj says:

    Of course we are. Must keep the good boy network going! Keep those jails crammed full no matter how minor or stupid the crime! Wasting court time and tax payer money on the most ridiculous minor crimes. Still, politicians like Rick Scott here in Florida & others love the idea of jails being full. Keeps their donors happy. Never seen a full jail they don’t like yet.

  6. anjin-san says:

    This is just one more instance of government being captured by industry, in the case the prison and criminal justice industries. What’s good for the country in general, and the taxpayers in particular, runs a distant second.

    We could accomplish a lot by taking half of that spending and putting it into schools, hospitals, and infrastructure. But I suspect we won’t.

  7. michael reynolds says:

    It has been clear to every thinking person in this country for decades that the drug war is stupid, cruel, racist and self-destructive. But as Adlai Stevenson famously snarked you can’t win with just the thinking people.

  8. Ron Beasley says:

    I recently watched Ken Burns Prohibition. All of the same things we see in the war on drugs.
    It was largely ignored
    Bad people made lots of money
    Incredible violence
    Many poisoned by bad liquor
    It did appear that few actually went to prison however.

  9. anjin-san says:

    All of the same things we see in the war on drugs.

    Prohibition never ended, they just declared a new enemy when the Volstead Act was repealed and alcohol became legal again. As soon as the criminal justice/prison types realized much of their funding was about to go away, Marijuana, Assassin of Youth was born.

    It’s always been about moralizing, money, and power. The ability to wage legal warfare on colored folks is bonus.

  10. wr says:

    @Caj: “Still, politicians like Rick Scott here in Florida & others love the idea of jails being full.”

    Scott’s just hoping there’s no room left for him…

  11. OzarkHillbilly says:


    These numbers don’t take state prisoners into account.

    Oh well, if we count them we have a larger percentage of our black population in prison than South Africa did at the height of apartheid. And you say drug laws aren’t good for anything…..

  12. Pinky says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Ozark – I was pointing out where I thought the weakness was in the statistics I was using, just to be fair. I then looked up the state statistics and cited them (although I messed up the hyperlink). I didn’t say anything about the drug laws, only that the article was incorrect in blaming drug laws for the incarceration levels. If I did mess up the stats, I hope someone corrects them.

  13. OzarkHillbilly says:


    If I did mess up the stats, I hope someone corrects them.

    Which totally skips over the point I was making. For reference, google Crack sentencing and then google powder coke sentencing (in truth, one will probably do). And after you look at the pre-fix sentencing guidelines, look at the post fix sentencing guidelines. Then ask yourself: Who uses crack? Who uses powdered coke?

    Yeah, they made things better, but did they make them equal?

    You know as well as I do, if the end result is racially inequitable, the policy is racist. They can cover it up in all kinds of flowery language, but it’s still just dog whistling.

  14. Pinky says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: I didn’t realize that was the point you were trying to make.