The punishment rate is a more nuanced assessment of criminal justice trends than the imprisonment rate, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts.

The imprisonment rate is calculated based on the number of inmates per 100,000 people and is the most widely used data for assessing the criminal justice system.

The report suggests that states and the federal government should also consider the punishment rate, which “gauges the size of the prison population relative to the frequency and severity of crime reported in each jurisdiction, putting the imprisonment rate in a broader context.”

It considers both the imprisonment rate and the severity-weighted crime rate – “the frequency and seriousness of reported crime per 100,000 residents, as measured by the seven specific offenses for which reliable, national data are available and that the FBI classifies as Part I offenses: criminal homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny theft and motor vehicle theft.”

Using this alternate metric, Pew found that while the imprisonment rate rose by 149 percent from 1983 to 2013, the punishment rate increased by 165 percent.

The report explained that this increase resulted from the fact that while crime rates have fallen significantly since 1991, the imprisonment rate has remained at an all-time high.

“In other words, the United States has responded to declining crime with the same high level of imprisonment, leading to a significant increase in the punishment rate, particularly in recent years.”

The full report is available here.

Editor’s note:’s documentary, “Through the Door,” looks at issues facing the criminal justice system and shares how people of faith are working to make a positive impact. A free resource sheet on prisons and prison reform is available here.

Share This