The number of inmates in America’s prisons and jails continues to grow. According to a new report from the Department of Justice, the rate of people held in custody has almost doubled since 1985, from 313 inmates per 100,000 residents to about 600 inmates per 100,000. In Texas, the number of state prisoners increased fivefold from 1975 to 1994.

While prison populations continue to grow, the effects of such incarceration on violent crime are debated fervently—and increasing numbers of Americans wonder whether we’re putting the wrong people in jail and letting out some who, for the sake of public safety and security, might better serve out their full sentences.

It might be surprising to many people, but the United States puts a higher percentage of its population in jail than almost any other country in the world. Previously, only South Africa and the former Soviet Union put a higher percentage of their people in jail.

Since the end of apartheid, the imprisonment rate in South Africa has declined dramatically, leaving the United States and Russia to jockey for the dubious honor of being the top prison-masters. In 1992-93, Russia imprisoned 558 of every 100,000 of its citizens while the United States jailed 519. Since then, the United States has increased its incarceration rates; we were unable to get more recent figures for Russia.

Both countries’ imprisonment figures are radically higher than any other country. England (in 1992-93) imprisoned 93 of every 100,000 residents. For Canada the number was 116; for Japan, 36; for France, 84; for New Zealand, 135. Singapore is considered a tough, punitive place, yet it put 229 of every 100,000 residents in prison, less than half the imprisonment rate for the United States.

The imprisonment rate seems to bear little relationship to the incidence of violent crime. From 1980 to 1986, the number of prison inmates increased by 65 percent and violent crime declined by 16 percent. From 1986 to 1991, the inmate population increased by 51 percent—and violent crime also increased, by 15 percent. Since 1991, incarceration rates have continued to increase, and violent crime seems to have leveled off—but is still much higher than in the 1950s or 1960s when we imprisoned a much smaller percentage of the population.

In part, this disjunction might be because we are putting the wrong people in jail. Despite public concern about violent crime, between 1980 and 1993, 84 percent of the increase in new court commitments to prison were for drug, property, and public order offenses, and only 16 percent were for violent crimes. In 1980, about 6 percent of new state prisoners were drug offenders; in 1990 the total was 30 percent.

The imposition of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders has led to more prison overcrowding, which has led to more early releases for violent criminals. Florida, for example, intensified drug war enforcement between 1984 and 1989. In 1984, a typical Florida prisoner served 50 percent of his sentences, but by 1989, the average prisoner served only 33 percent of his or her sentence.

In a fascinating new study for the Independent Institute, economics professors Bruce Benson and David Rasmussen of Florida State University demonstrate, with side-by-side case studies, that when drug war enforcement increases, other law-enforcement priorities suffer. Far from reducing crime, waging a drug war seems to increase it.

The two recommend cracking down on juvenile offenders before crime becomes a way of life, abolishing asset-forfeiture laws, making public safety (rather than the number of arrests) the main policy priority, decentralizing the prison system, and decriminalizing drug use.

Those recommendations deserve serious consideration and debate. In an election year they are unlikely to get it.