The United States has 4.47% of the world’s population (2012). The United States has (depending upon which study you use) 23%-25% of the world’s prisoners. The incarceration rate in the US is 5 times the average for the rest of the world. In the graphic above, the US is the only country in the world colored bright red at greater than 750 per 100,000 population.
At an incarceration rate of 750 per 100,000, 1 out of every 133 adults in the US is in prison/jail. Now, considering the fact that the incarceration rate for males in the US is 13 times higher than for females, this means that approximately 1 out of 67 adult males in the US is in prison.
The actual number of people in prison in the US is approximately 2.3 million. But get this – there are an additional 5 million on probation or parole!
Does anybody else find find these to be staggering statistics?
Take a look at the chart below:
The incarceration rate in the US is 6-10 times that of other industrialized countries with which we typically compare ourselves – Europe, Canada, Australia, Japan.
Do you think that this might suggest that something is “out of whack”? Does the US have 6-10 times as much crime? Does the US have 6-10 times the drug problem? Is US law enforcement 6-10 times better at “catching the bad guys” than in other industrialized countries? My belief is that that answer to all these questions is “no.”
For a different perspective on the problem, consider the following chart:
So … how did all this come to be? If the US doesn’t have a greater crime or drug problem than other industrialized countries, and US law enforcement is not 6-10 times “better” than any other country, what’s to explain this? If we look at the chart of the US incarceration rate as a function of calendar year, it’s clear that starting in about 1980, “something” happened. This is when the incarceration rate started to skyrocket. Now, I don’t think there’s a simple conclusion to be drawn from the data. Certainly, one part of it is the so-called “war on drugs” which makes criminals of “users” and “possessors”, and puts them in prison. I think another part of it is the politically driven trend to being “tough on crime”, which is very appealing to voters, especially for the elected positions of prosecutor and judge; although it also applies to legislators. This has resulted in prosecutors who trumpet their conviction record to get re-elected, judges who trumpet their sentencing record to get re-elected, and legislators who trumpet their “tough on crime” laws record to get re-elected.
As with all politics, self-service and expediency rule the day, and “so what” if we’re not addressing the true root cause of the problem. So we’ve wound up with laws that make all kinds of things punishable by imprisonment, mandatory minimum sentencing laws that take all discretion away from judges, and “three strikes” laws that are just ‘nuts’. I also have a personal theory that the US justice system, at its core, is largely punitive and revenge-based, but that’s a topic for another posting.
The studies on whether longer sentences deter crime are all over the map, although there seems to be some agreement that longer sentences are marginally more effective with repeat offenders. (“If you do this again, next time it will be X+10 years.”) One statistic that correlates positively with reduced recidivism is ‘age at release from prison’. If someone is released at age 50 or 60, the normal human aging process has reduced the probability of further offenses, which is an effect independent of the deterrence due to sentence length. Here is a recent article addressing the misdirectedness of longer prison sentences by Paul McDowell, who is chief executive of the crime reduction organization Nacro in the UK. Studies have clearly shown, however, that longer sentences have little to no effect on the deterrence of violent crime – murder, rape, assault.
A 2008 NY Times article here, while addressing the US incarceration issue, contains the following quote: “Criminologists and legal scholars in other industrialized nations say they are mystified and appalled by the number and length of American prison sentences.”
One thing that is very clear is that the ballooning incarceration rate has visited a burdensome load on the taxpayers. Here is a recent article by CNN correspondent Lisa Bloom addressing this issue. I would hypothesize that with the money the US spends on keeping people in prison for long periods of time, we can keep the prisons for those who really should be in them, but set up massive rehabilitation programs that would be more effective, and the net result would be significantly less expense to the taxpayer.
The Bottom Line
1) Make all the arguments you want about deterrence, recidivism, “war on drugs”, and “tough on crime.” Just look at the rest of the world! We’re doing something wrong.
2) Since this is The Wrongful Convictions Blog, what’s the impact on wrongful convictions? If we assume that the wrongful conviction rate remains relatively constant with volume of cases, the more cases you prosecute, the more wrongful convictions you will produce in absolute number. AND if you have been wrongfully convicted, and are given a draconian mandatory sentence, this exacerbates the injustice.
As Yale Law School professor, James Q. Whitman has said, “We have a highly politicized criminal justice system.”