Wednesday, April 23, 2008

U.S. Leads the World in Incarceration

While the United States had the dubious distinction of being the country that incarcerates more of its citizens per capita we now have an equally astounding benchmark. The United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world. We incarcerate more people than countries with four times the population. According to an April 23, 2008 article in the New York Times by Adam Liptak, the U.S. now leads the world in people behind bars.

The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population. But it has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.

Indeed, the United States leads the world in producing prisoners, a reflection of a relatively recent and now entirely distinctive American approach to crime and punishment. Americans are locked up for crimes — from writing bad checks to using drugs — that would rarely produce prison sentences in other countries. And in particular they are kept incarcerated far longer than prisoners in other nations.

Criminologists and legal scholars in other industrialized nations say they are mystified and appalled by the number and length of American prison sentences.

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....

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....

“Far from serving as a model for the world, contemporary America is viewed with horror,” James Q. Whitman, a specialist in comparative law at Yale, wrote last year in Social Research. “Certainly there are no European governments sending delegations to learn from us about how to manage prisons.”

Prison sentences here have become “vastly harsher than in any other country to which the United States would ordinarily be compared,” Michael H. Tonry, a leading authority on crime policy, wrote in “The Handbook of Crime and Punishment.”

Indeed, said Vivien Stern, a research fellow at the prison studies center in London, the American incarceration rate has made the United States “a rogue state, a country that has made a decision not to follow what is a normal Western approach.”....

Efforts to combat illegal drugs play a major role in explaining long prison sentences in the United States as well. In 1980, there were about 40,000 people in American jails and prisons for drug crimes. These days, there are almost 500,000.

Those figures have drawn contempt from European critics. “The U.S. pursues the war on drugs with an ignorant fanaticism,” said Ms. Stern of King’s College....

Other commentators were more definitive. “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.”

Dubious honor. Nonetheless, commentators, politicos and prosecutors continue to push harsh incarceration policies. One wonders what the long term effects of such policies will be? Prison does nothing to prepare inmates to become productive citizens. To the contrary, given the nature of imprisonment, the longer an inmate spends in prison the more dysfunctional he or she becomes. In the end, we will find that these policies are decaying our democratic values. And it will be future generations who will pay for this vengeful folly.

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