Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Global Incarceration and the U.S. "Gold Medal"

We may have to compete with other countries for gold medals this summer in the Olympics, but one area we have the world whipped is incarceration, as this NYT article notes.

Inmate Count in U.S. Dwarfs Other Nations:

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

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.

Criminologists and legal experts here and abroad point to a tangle of factors to explain America’s extraordinary incarceration rate: higher levels of violent crime, harsher sentencing laws, a legacy of racial turmoil, a special fervor in combating illegal drugs, the American temperament, and the lack of a social safety net. Even democracy plays a role, as judges — many of whom are elected, another American anomaly — yield to populist demands for tough justice.
The article goes on to discuss the role the War on Drugs has played in this, as well as violent crime. However, it also notes that violent crime plays a very small role in the number of persons incarcerated in the U.S., and makes no mention of the role probation and parole violations, which feed more than 50% of prison admissions annually, play in keeping the numbers so high.
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.
Or worse, things like failing to keep an appointment or losing your job (see also: technical violations of probation and parole).

While noting the "minimal effect" of race and sentencing (suggesting incarceration rates are high for racial and ethnic minorities in most European countries and Canada as well), the article allows the specious relationship between crime rates and imprisonment rates to go virtually unchallenged.
Whatever the reasons, there is little dispute that America’s exceptional incarceration rate has had an impact on crime.

“As one might expect, a good case can be made that fewer Americans are now being victimized” thanks to the tougher crime policies, Paul G. Cassell, an authority on sentencing and a former federal judge, wrote in The Stanford Law Review.

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.”
Of course, not only is that a highly debatable proposition (many penologists consider it nonsense, frankly), but the idea that "there is little dispute" about this is silly.

Crime rates ebb and flow due to a myriad of factors, including economy (which roared in the 90's), poverty (which plummeted) and age demographics (there were simply fewer people in Generation X moving through their crime-producing years in the 80's and 90's than the previous Boomer generation). While incarceration was part and parcel to this drop, there is also evidence to suggest imprisonment rates and crime rates aren't correlated in the least.

Nevertheless, the article does an adequate job of presenting the U.S. imprisonment rates at the top of the global context. I realize our culture vaunts its "Number One!" ethos, but this is a rather ignominious distinction, to say the least.

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