US: Prisons

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The highest rate of incarceration in the world.

One of the yardsticks by which Barack Obama is likely to be assessed is whether the prison population falls or rises during his period in office. The facts are stark: the US has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world and the highest total documented prison population.

The numbers in jail rose rapidly during the 1980s, the period when right winger Ronald Reagan was in office, from around 500,000 to 2.3 million today. This means that over 1 percent of the US population is behind bars.

Even more significantly for a black president, black prisoners make up the large majority of the jailed population. While the official figures do not show a breakdown of the prison population by ethnic origin, they do so for rates of imprisonment.

These show that in 2008 there were 727 white males in prison for every 100,000 US residents. The figures for Hispanic males were over twice as high, at 1,760 males in prison for every 100,000 residents.

But the figures for black males represent the greatest indictment of the system, with 4,777 black males in prison for every 100,000 US residents. This means that there are over 6.5 times as many black males as white males in prison in the US. As a result, around one in nine black men aged between 20 and 34 are behind bars in Obama's America.

When it comes to the death penalty, many of the same patterns are repeated. The latest official statistics, for 2008, show that there were 3,207 people awaiting execution in US jails. Of these, 1,798 are white, though this includes 373 Hispanic prisoners, and 1,338 are black.

But despite the fact that African-Americans make up around half of all homicide victims, since 1977 over three-quarters of death row defendants have been executed for killing white victims.

In a 2003 report, the US Government Accountability Office found that a defendant was more likely to be sentenced to death if the murder victim was white.