The answer to this question is astounding: the U.S. incarcerates 25% of the world's prison population with only 7% of the world's population. This is a disturbing anamoly in the history of the world. Never before has a country been able to incarcerate so many people at such a high rate, two million and 1 in 127 respectively. These large numbers are incredibly difficult to think about in meaningful terms. But if you can imagine the population of Los Angeles in 1950; and if you then put all of those people in some type of cage, you are close to contemplating the immensity of the U.S. incarcerated population. The incredibly important and disturbing factor is how fast this occurred. Today's level of roughly two million was achieved mainly since 1980 when there was about 500,000 people incarcerated.
California illustrates how this growth has occurred over a relatively short period of time. Since 1977, the California Department of Correction's (CDC's) prison population has increased from 17,338 to 160,655, over a seven hundred percent increse. If you add the people in California's federal prisons and county jails, California leads the country with around 258,000 people in prison or jail. When we color these numbers, the problem becomes clearer: of the prison population, African Americans constitute almost one third while they represent 6% of the population. Said another way, 1,996 in every 100,000 African American Californians are imprisoned in comparison to the 242 whites in every 100,000. Latinos, proportionally, have suffered the brunt of California's prison boom. In 1977, 42% of the prison population was white and 22% was Latino. The two groups are approaching a full reversal because today Latinos represent 35% of the state prison population whereas whites now represent 29%. A total reversal appears likely if you look at the juvenile halls in Los Angeles County, where 1,100 of the 1,800 youth inside are Latino.
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