Incarceration rates in Canada vs America

incarceration rates canada vs america

Spoiler alert: US incarceration rate really high, about 5 times Canadian rate

As inmates throughout the United States continue to stage numerous demonstrations in what appears to be the largest coordinated prison strike in history, and as news of the near superhero speed at which people are arrested for drug possession (at a Flash-like rate of one arrest per 25 seconds) sends shock waves throughout the Twittersphere, calls to reform the US justice system are all but deafened by tales of who groped whom, courtesy of the 2016 election.

But beyond the election news, or perhaps because of it, some people may be wondering how the prison system in the US compares to that of Canada (the info could prove useful to anyone harboring plans to immigrate and become an inmate and/or private prison contractor).

While the Canadian system attracts its fair share of criticism, particularly given the increase in federal prison populations over the last decade, it pales in comparison to the calls for reform that the US system has fielded for years. With the most recent rates of sentenced prisoners in the US exceeding Canada’s by five times the amount, Uncle Sam’s reputation as one of the world’s most gung-ho jailers certainly checks out.

Us vs Canada incarceration rates

The graph shows the rate of sentenced prisoners per 100,000 in Canada and the US since 1980, including both federal and state/provincial populations, excluding prisoners in county jails and those in custody awaiting sentencing. Data compiled from Statistics Canada and the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports.

As of 2014, the rate of sentenced prisoners in the US is 471 per 100,000 compared to Canada’s 89 per 100,000. As the graph above shows, the incarceration rate in Canada has stayed roughly the same over the last three decades, whereas the US rate steadily increased throughout the 1980s and began declining in 2008.

US prison yard vs Canadian

Of course, more prisoners means more profits places required to imprison them. One major difference between the countries’ respective systems is that privatized prisons have flourished in the States, thanks to mass incarceration, while Canada’s government-contracted prison system continues to languish, though not for lack of lobbying.

Time will only tell whether the US decision to not renew federal prison contracts or Prime Minister Trudeau’s promises to legalize marijuana will have any real impact on future incarceration rates.

Stay tuned for more information about incarceration in Canada vs America, such as prison costs (and profits) and the breakdown of prison populations by demographics, especially when it comes to locking up indigenous populations.

In the meantime, you can mill over these bleak US prison stats as part of your unflinching determination to avoid eye contact with your cellmate/coworker.

Also published on Medium.

7 thoughts on “Incarceration rates in Canada vs America

  • Posted on November 9, 2016 at 4:16 pm

    I think the rates should be represented by percentage of the population, not actual count, considering just how much larger the US population is. It’s pretty misleading.

    • Posted on November 9, 2016 at 11:26 pm

      Rates are per 100,000, which is a standard measurement tool that allows you to compare stats from different sized jurisdictions, in this case, dividing the total number of sentenced prisoners by the total population and multiplying that by 100,000, so as not to use decimal places. So yes, by definition, rates are adjusted for population. But just in case that wasn’t obvious the first time, I’ve added bold for emphasis.

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