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It Should Come as No Surprise

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Given all the press recently about the U.S. incarceration rate — which now tops 1 in every 100 adults — it should come as no surprise that the US leads the world in both total number of incarcerees and the per capita incarceration rate. As Liptak puts it, our prison population dwarfs that of other countries. A dubious distinction if I ever heard one.

From Liptak’s article in today’s NYT:

The United States has, for instance, 2.3 million criminals behind bars, more than any other nation, according to data maintained by the International Center for Prison Studies at King’s College London.

China, which is four times more populous than the United States, is a distant second, with 1.6 million people in prison. (That number excludes hundreds of thousands of people held in administrative detention, most of them in China’s extrajudicial system of re-education through labor, which often singles out political activists who have not committed crimes.)

San Marino, with a population of about 30,000, is at the end of the long list of 218 countries compiled by the center. It has a single prisoner.

The United States comes in first, too, on a more meaningful list from the prison studies center, the one ranked in order of the incarceration rates. It has 751 people in prison or jail for every 100,000 in population. (If you count only adults, one in 100 Americans is locked up.)

The only other major industrialized nation that even comes close is Russia, with 627 prisoners for every 100,000 people. The others have much lower rates. England’s rate is 151; Germany’s is 88; and Japan’s is 63. The median among all nations is about 125, roughly a sixth of the American rate.

As Liptak notes there are several reasons underlying this disparity: punitive American drug laws, the greater availability of guns in the U.S. (our murder rate is much higher than our peer nations’), and good ol’ American racism.

And other countries see our ballooned prison population as yet another reason to disdain rather than respect America today. Those other countries have their share of prison problems, too, but they just don’t compare to ours:

Still, it is the length of sentences that truly distinguishes American prison policy. Indeed, the mere number of sentences imposed here would not place the United States at the top of the incarceration lists. If lists were compiled based on annual admissions to prison per capita, several European countries would outpace the United States. But American prison stays are much longer, so the total incarceration rate is higher.

Burglars in the United States serve an average of 16 months in prison, according to Mr. Mauer, compared with 5 months in Canada and 7 months in England.

Many specialists dismissed race as an important distinguishing factor in the American prison rate. It is true that blacks are much more likely to be imprisoned than other groups in the United States, but that is not a particularly distinctive phenomenon. Minorities in Canada, Britain and Australia are also disproportionately represented in those nation’s prisons, and the ratios are similar to or larger than those in the United States.

Still, “tough on crime” prison advocates in the US maintain that our system works in reducing crime. As with the claims of any socialized medicine folks, our neighbors to the north may prove them wrong:

“The simple truth is that imprisonment works,” wrote Kent Scheidegger and Michael Rushford of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in The Stanford Law and Policy Review. “Locking up criminals for longer periods reduces the level of crime. The benefits of doing so far offset the costs.”

There is a counterexample, however, to the north. “Rises and falls in Canada’s crime rate have closely paralleled America’s for 40 years,” Mr. Tonry wrote last year. “But its imprisonment rate has remained stable.”

So, as I ask at the end of virtually every post on prisons, the question is this: if prisons are an ineffective resource drain, why do we still love them so much?

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