Something Rotten in the USA
(via Crooked Timber.)
Here's what they're in for (as of 1996):
(source: Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin: Prisoners in 1996 pdf)
We're failing somewhere.
I believe that a large part of it is due to conservative policies. Conservatives tend to see social issues as moral ones. They emphasize "personal responsibility" and decry any attempt at understanding criminals as justification for their behavior. Just as many conservatives push "abstinence-only" sex education despite evidence that it's less effective than comprehensive sex ed, they push what I'll call "incarceration-only" social policy despite its ineffectiveness.
The prime example of this "incarceration only" social policy is the way we have been fighting (and losing) the so-called "War on Drugs." Whereas liberals would like to focus on providing education and opportunity to at-risk teens and treatment for users, conservatives focus on just locking people up. Politicians who disagree with the War on Drugs or even suggest that what we're doing isn't working are labeled "soft on crime."
Liberal policies of helping the poor through education and economic opportunity (for many youngsters, selling drugs is one of few economic opportunities currently available) combined with drug decriminalization, drug treatment programs, mental health care, and sensible gun control would do a much better job at reducing crime -- and probably for much less money. I'm no pollyanna that thinks we can cure all addicts just by sending them through a treatment program, but we can do better than just locking them up for a decade with a bunch of violent felons and then releasing them with no money, no job, and no prospects.