Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Inmate Count in U.S. Dwarfs Other Nations’

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

Compared to any other nation, the US has many more people behind bars. 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.)

2,258,983 in the US; 885,014 in Russia; 1,565,771 in China. Wow. 113 prisoners in Iceland, or 36 per 100,000 people -- the US has 751 prisoners per 100,00 people. A chart with the NYT article shows the ugly truth. Yes, China has many more than 1.6 million prisoners, but it, nominally, a disctatorship, while the US, nominally, is a democracy.

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.)

One in one hundred!

“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.”

Get this one: 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.”

The US a rogue state. My, my.

The spike in American incarceration rates is quite recent. From 1925 to 1975, the rate remained stable, around 110 people in prison per 100,000 people. It shot up with the movement to get tough on crime in the late 1970s.

Interesting time.
The nation’s relatively high violent crime rate, partly driven by the much easier availability of guns here, helps explain the number of people in American prisons.

Guns don't kill people, people kill people, or something along that line, was a slogan in use by people opposed to gun bans, or control. Relatively high rate? That needs explaining. Here is some explanation.

“The assault rate in New York and London is not that much different,” said Marc Mauer, the executive director of the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy group. “But if you look at the murder rate, particularly with firearms, it’s much higher.”

A twist.

But that is only a partial explanation. The United States, in fact, has relatively low rates of nonviolent crime. It has lower burglary and robbery rates than Australia, Canada and England.

Uniquely American: People who commit nonviolent crimes in the rest of the world are less likely to receive prison time and certainly less likely to receive long sentences. The United States is, for instance, the only advanced country that incarcerates people for minor property crimes like passing bad checks, Mr. Whitman wrote.

And: 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.

A critic is spot-on: 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.

Spot on. Still, there is no simple answer.

... 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.

Even experts can be wrong, I'd say.

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.

That would seem to confirm race as a factor.

Some scholars have found that English-speaking nations have higher prison rates. “Although it is not at all clear what it is about Anglo-Saxon culture that makes predominantly English-speaking countries especially punitive, they are,” Mr. Tonry wrote last year in “Crime, Punishment and Politics in Comparative Perspective.”

Nothing is simple.

Of course, sentencing policies within the United States are not monolithic, and national comparisons can be misleading. “Minnesota looks more like Sweden than like Texas,” said Mr. Mauer of the Sentencing Project. (Sweden imprisons about 80 people per 100,000 of population; Minnesota, about 300; and Texas, almost 1,000. Maine has the lowest incarceration rate in the United States, at 273; and Louisiana the highest, at 1,138.)

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