Vox parsed out the Bureau of Justice Statistics' numbers on incarceration in prisons (excluding jails) and produced this ghastly visualization tracking the transformaiton of America into the country with the highest rate of incarceration in the history of the world.
In the explanatory text, Dara Lind points out that the alleged "soft on crime" era of the 1970s was a tiny little blip, and is an unconvincing explanation for the rise and rise of prisons since.
What Lind doesn't talk about is the way that the vast, vastly profitable private prison industry created and lobbied for legislation that criminalized more conduct and set out longer sentences for violations, operating in opaque secrecy, running forced-labor camps, profiteering from prisoners and their families, bribing judges to send black kids to jail, and producing a system where the rich can launder billions for drug cartels without a single criminal prosecution, but poor people caught with minute amounts of weed go to jail for long stretches.
In other words: that hockey-stick growth isn't an accident.
…[B]oth of these conclusions rest on the idea that the 1970s were a uniquely "soft on crime" era.
But this chart shows just how small, relatively speaking, the decline in imprisonment really was.
At the time, going from 120 to 100 prisoners per 10,000 adult residents probably seemed like a significant drop. But it was still within the range the imprisonment rate had been in for the past several decades — and still higher than it had been during the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. The rise in imprisonment during the 1980s and 1990s, on the other hand, was totally unprecedented. It dwarfed the drop in imprisonment of the Johnson and Nixon eras. And while it stabilized during the 2000s and has dropped (slightly and unevenly) during this decade, we're still in a uniquely carceral period in American history.
One chart that puts mass incarceration in historical context
(via Naked Capitalism)