The root cause of the sky high US incarceration rate is the war on drugs. When it was announced by Richard Nixon in 1971, fewer than 40,000 people were incarcerated for drug offenses; now, it’s more than half a million, out of a total prison population of 2.4 million in 2012. (Again, these numbers can be confusing; the chart above refers to almost half of prisoners serving drug related sentences, but that is within the federal prison system only.)
What is truly amazing about the war on drugs is not simply that is has been a massive failure with huge financial and human costs, or that is has failed in stopping widespread drug use in America, but that it is an exact copy, both in intent and outcome, to a policy that was tried in America and universally declared a massive failure. Here is the way that writer Bill Bryson described Prohibition in America from 1920 until 1933:
“It was easily the extreme, ill judged, costly, and ignored experiment in social engineering ever conducted by an otherwise rational nation. At a stroke it shut down the 5th largest industry in America. It took some $2 billion a year out of the hands of legitimate interests and put in the hands of murderous thugs. It made criminals of honest people and actually led to an increase in the amount of drinking in the country”. (Summer of 27, p.161)
Bryson could just as easily been describing the war on drugs, except that the latter has lasted much longer, been far more expensive, and resulted in much greater numbers of Americans going to jail.