Productivity Lost Due to Incarceration in the United States

Punishment for crimes is one of the oldest tenets of society. Laws that describe violations and the corresponding consequence go back thousands of years, even back to ancient Mesopotamia with Hammurabi’s Code. Since then, laws and their punishments have changed over time as we grow and develop as a society.

In the United States, incarceration for various amounts of time is a common form of punishment for crimes. In fact, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any developed country and has for some time. It’s a complicated issue that stems from numerous problems and sparks debate between scholars, advocates, lawmakers, and many other groups. Certainly we understand that a significant number of inmates have charges related to drugs, and that too has become a topic of debate in recent years.

Putting aside politics and the ‘why’ behind the United States’ high rates of incarceration, we were interested in looking at the big picture of the country in terms of prison and jail populations. Additionally, we asked the hypothetical question, “How much productivity are states losing due to their incarcerated population?” Using numbers from The Sentencing Project and the U.S. federal government, we were able to answer this question in terms of hours and money lost.

Note that this study is not intended to be commentary on the justice system in the United States. Instead, it’s intended to be a way for others to see the current state of the U.S. and how states compare. We hope this can be a resource for others who are participating in writing about, discussing, and debating the justice system.

How Many People Are in Prison in Every U.S. State?

united states map displays percentage of every state's population that is incarcerated

For our study, we first found the total number of prisoners in each state. The numbers are similar to the overall state populations with a few notable differences. Georgia, which is the 8th most populous state, has the 4th highest prison population. Louisiana is the 25th largest state by population but 8th in terms of inmates. On the other hand, states such as Vermont, Rhode Island, and Alaska have some of the fewest inmates and also some of the smallest overall populations.

The Percentage of Every State’s Population That Is Incarcerated

united states map shows percentage of each states population that is incarcerated

Next, we looked at the percentage of each state’s population that is incarcerated. Louisiana topped the list at 1.42%, the highest by far. Mississippi (1.07%), Oklahoma (1.00%), Kentucky (0.95%), and Georgia (0.92%) round out the rest of the top five. The state with the lowest percentage is Rhode Island at 0.19%. Vermont (0.24%), Hawaii (0.26%), Maine (0.27%) and Massachusetts (0.28%) are the next four states with the lowest figures.

The Hours of Workforce Productivity Lost Due to Incarceration by State

united states map displays hours of workforce productivity lost due to incarceration by state

After that, we calculated the amount of hours each state is losing from the general workforce due to their inmate population. We used the average number of hours an American works each week, calculated per year, and multiplied that by the total incarcerated population. The rankings for the states is the same as the total inmate population, but this gives a bit more of a quantifiable and relatable number.

Monetary Productivity/Wages Lost to Incarceration by State

Money lost due to incarceration state map graphic

Finally, we took those hours and found out how much money is lost in wages. We took the total prison population in each state and multiplied it by $33,546, the inflation-adjusted dollar amount of productivity estimated is lost in a year per incarcerated person. This also follows the ranking of total population but it again provides a more relatable way to look at the data.

Overall, incarceration continues to be a point of discussion in the United States. We understand that there is more than one reason and more than one solution to this problem. We do believe, however, that education is a key part of helping, especially when it comes to drug-related crimes. They make up a significant portion of crimes in the U.S. and many of them can be avoided with education and discussion.

If you or someone you know someone who may have a substance abuse problem, contact us to learn more about how we can help.


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