Posted by: Shaun | April 23, 2008

America: A World Leader…in Incarceration

Today the New York Times published the first in a series of articles examining aspects of the U.S. justice system in comparative context and the first facet singled out for inspection is an ugly one: incarceration. The fact is that both in absolute terms and in proportion to our population, the United States is the largest jailer in the world. There are more than 2,300,000 Americans serving time in prison, or 751 prisoners per 100,000 Americans (the piece notes that if you exclude children, one percent of all U.S. adults are imprisoned). This compares to 151 per 100,000 in Britain, 108 per 100,000 in Canada, and 91 per 100,000 in France.

What accounts for this punitive excess? The Times article cites a panoply of causes that include jailing large numbers of drug offenders, 500,000 of whom are behind bars, mandatory minimums and other sentencing guidelines lengthening the duration of jail time, and good old fashioned democracy.

This last point may seem counterintuitive, but when judges and prosecutors must face reelection, they need a record to run on and that means getting convictions (State’s Attorney Buckley from Richard Wright’s Native Son comes to mind…). There is also the small matter that felons are counted toward the population of the place where their prison is located, not their original place of residence, when it comes time to draw Congressional districts and calculate the allocation of federal funds. Essentially, they are free residents (housed by the state or federal government) who cannot vote but bring in dollars and electoral clout for the locals to enjoy, creating a perverse incentive to “keep them around for a while”, so to speak.

Of course, there are a number of opinions as to whether this elaborate, common law gulag has the intended effect of lowering crime rates. Certainly, some impact on public safety in undeniable given the enormity of the project, but is this really an efficient means of solving the problem? The Times reports that Canada’s crime rates mirror our own, yet the prison population has remained relatively stable, suggesting the link between the two variables may be more tenuous than believed. Moreover, the nearly 70% rate of recidivism begs the question whether lower crime rates are a permanent phenomenon or the result of simply holding offenders for longer periods of time at vast public expense (see below).

Bureau of Justice Statistics\

Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics

What the article does not explore are the vast racial disparities that blight this already regrettable system. It mentions them only to dismiss them as insignificant to the larger trends of incarceration rates because other, less punitive societies like Britain also jail more minorities than other people. Still, the fact that an African-American is five times as likely to be imprisoned as a Caucasian in the United States strikes me as…important? Outrageous, perhaps? Hopefully a future article will cover this aspect of the justice system in some depth.

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