(CBS News) Is it fair to call the United States the "incarceration nation"? That's what some experts say. And even some veteran law enforcement and correction officials think something's gone wrong. Our Cover Story is reported now by Martha Teichner:
At the Gadsden County Jail near Tallahassee, Fla., there are bunks, and mattresses on the floor.
The jail has a capacity of about 150 inmates, but there are presently 230 inmates in the facility right now.
Walter McNeil, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, sees the same story everywhere he goes in the U.S.
In one "pod" of Gadsen jail, in which there are 24 bunks, there are 28 inmates - and by the time the weekend comes, there will be five or six more inmates.
That's nothing compared to California. Overcrowding was so bad there, the U.S. Supreme Court called it "cruel and unusual punishment," and last May ordered the state to cut its prison population by more than 30,000.
Nationwide, the numbers are staggering: Nearly 2.4 million people behind bars, even though over the last 20 years the crime rate has actually dropped by more than 40 percent.
"The United States has about 5 percent of the world's population, but we have 25 percent of the world's prisoners - we incarcerate a greater percentage of our population than any country on Earth," said Michael Jacobson, director of the non-partisan Vera Institute of Justice. He also ran New York City's jail and probation systems in the 1990s.
A report by the organization, "The Price of Prisons," states that the cost of incarcerating one inmate in Fiscal 2010 was $31,307 per year. "In states like Connecticut, Washington state, New York, it's anywhere from $50,000 to $60,000," he said.
Yes - $60,000 a year. That's a teacher's salary, or a firefighter's. Our epidemic of incarceration costs us taxpayers $63.4 billion a year.
The explosion in incarceration began in the early 1970s - the political response to an explosion in urban violence and increased drug use.
"So 'Tough on crime,' 'three strikes, you're out,' 'Let 'em rot, throw away the key' - all that stuff resulted in more mandatory sentencing, longer and longer sentencing," said Jacobson.