A nation’s rate of incarceration is the number of people incarcerated as a proportion of its total population. Internationally, there is broad variation in the degree to which nations incarcerate their citizens, with a nearly 40-fold difference between the highest and lowest rates. The incarceration rate is often interpreted as a measurement of the degree of punitiveness in a society, although it is an imperfect measurement. Factors that may influence these rates include rates of serious crime, law enforcement and prosecutorial decision making, scale of prison admissions, length of time served in prison, and other means of social control in a society.
Emerging scholarship is exploring the broader societal factors contributing to a nation’s rate of incarceration. These studies explore policy initiatives to prioritize incarceration as a means of crime control, degree of inequality in a society, racial assumptions about crime, and the cultural values of a nation. With the rise of mass incarceration in the United States, a body of research has developed that is assessing the limited public safety benefits and collateral effects of these developments. These counterproductive effects include impacts on family formation and parenting in high-incarceration communities, rates of civic engagement, and the fraying of community bonds and informal social control.