Florida's Incarceration Rate Is Higher Than That of Every Country on Earth, Report Notes

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American's incarceration rate is absurdly, stupidly high. The United States imprisons more of its population than noted human-rights scofflaws such as Cuba, Russia, Turkey, and Iran — by a huge margin.

Though this fact has long been known, a new report released this week by the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative breaks down America's incarceration problem into even more depressing figures. If you compare each American state with every other nation on Earth, Florida's incarceration rate on its own ranks higher than every nation on the planet.

In fact, 31 American states have rates higher than any individual country, with Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, and Alabama making up the top five. Florida ranks 14th overall in the States. Oklahoma imprisons an insane 1,079 people for every 100,000 residents, while the Sunshine State ranks higher than the national average, jailing 833 people for every 100,000 Floridians.

The next-highest country on the list, El Salvador, imprisons only 614 people for every 100,000. Cuba? Just 510 people. Russia? Only 413. Iran sits at 284. The (rightfully) criticized Nicaragua jails just 238. Venezuela, a country that Florida's hardline Republicans really want to crack down on, imprisons only 173 people for every 100,000 residents.

Of course, those figures don't include people in other countries who are extrajudicially murdered, but America doesn't really have a great record with that either, given how many people its police officers kill per year compared to other developed countries.

"In fact, many of the countries that rank alongside the least punitive U.S. states, such as Turkmenistan, Thailand, Rwanda, and Russia, have authoritarian governments or have recently experienced large-scale internal armed conflicts," the Prison Policy Initiative writes. "Others struggle with violent crime on a scale far beyond that in the U.S.: El Salvador, Russia, Panama, Costa Rica, and Brazil all have murder rates more than double that of the U.S. Yet the U.S., 'land of the free,' tops them all."

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Prison Policy Initiative
Southern states performed poorly overall, given the region's long history of punitive drug polices, whacked-out Republican drug warriors, and long history of racism. Massachusetts, Vermont, Rhode Island, Maine, and Minnesota were the nation's least punitive states. Even top-ranking Massachusetts imprisons more people than all but nine nations on the planet.

"Today, there is finally serious talk of change, but little action that would bring the United States to an incarceration rate on par with other stable democracies," the researchers warn. "The incremental changes made in recent years aren’t enough to counteract the bad policy choices built up in every state over decades. For that, all states will have to aim higher, striving to be not just better than the worst U.S. states, but among the most fair and just in the world."

Lest anyone think Florida is working to end the War on Drugs or scale back its massive criminal-justice system, state officials in 2017 instead chose to crack down harder on drug dealers. In April 2017, the Florida Legislature passed a law imposing harsher penalties on people caught with relatively small amounts of opioid painkillers. Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a foundation dedicated to reducing drug sentences, called the bill a travesty similar to the kinds of bills used to ratchet up the War on Drugs in the '90s.

Somehow arrest rates also remain high in Florida despite record drops in violent crime. According to FBI data, the crime rate in Miami-Dade County has now dropped to one-third of the area's peak in the cocaine-soaked '80s.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.