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(Washington, DC, December 11, 2008) - New figures showing that the incarcerated population in the United States remains the largest in the world highlight the need to adopt alternative criminal justice policies, Human Rights Watch said today.

Statistics released today by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, a branch of the US Department of Justice, show that, as of December 31, 2007, nearly 2.3 million persons were incarcerated in US prisons and jails, giving the United States the largest incarcerated population in the world.  With 756 of every 100,000 residents behind bars, the United States also has the world's highest rate of incarceration. By contrast, Britain incarcerates 153 per 100,000 residents; in Canada, the figure is 108; and in Italy, 83.

"These new numbers confirm that the United States remains the world's leading prison nation," said David Fathi, US Program director at Human Rights Watch. "And they should prompt Americans to ask their leaders some tough questions. Why does the US lock up seven times as many people as Canada? Why are other countries able to protect public safety while incarcerating far fewer people?"  

The new statistics for the United States show large racial disparities, with black males incarcerated at a rate more than 6.5 times that of white males and 2.5 that of Hispanic males.  Black females are incarcerated at approximately three times the rate of white females and twice that of Hispanic females.

The new figures also show wide variation between individual states, with the highest state incarceration rate (Louisiana) more than five times as high as the lowest (Maine).

Human Rights Watch urged public officials in the United States to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for all drug offenses and to adopt community-based sanctions and other alternatives to incarceration for low-level drug offenders and other nonviolent offenders. 

Human Rights Watch also called on President-elect Barack Obama to chart a new course on criminal justice.

"President-elect Obama should lead a national conversation on crime-control policy," said Fathi. "It's time to turn away from the failed policies that have made the United States the world's leading jailer." 

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