The American Method of Imprisoning

May 21, 2008

Now the New York Times has compared our method of imprisonment with other countries. The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population but almost 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Americans imprison for acts for which many other countries do not, and Americans imprison for much longer than other nations.

Experts from other countries cannot understand the American approach. According to the International Center for Prison Studies at King’s College, London, the United States has 2.3 million inmates behind bars. The second-ranked leader in world numbers of prisoners, however, the Republic of China, with approximately 4 times more population, has only 1.6 million prisoners. (This excludes hundreds of thousands of those held in “administrative detention” in China, usually for political offenses rather than crimes).

In America, there are 751 people in prison or jail per 100,000 population. Russia is the only other industrialized country close with 627 for every 100,000 people. Then the figures drop off dramatically with England at 151, Germany at 88, and Japan at 63 prisoners per 100,000 population. Within the United States, Maine has the lowest rate at 273 per 100,000, and Louisiana has the highest at 1,138 per 100,000.

Practically all experts agree that the high incarceration rate in the United States has driven down crime. By about how much it has done so, there is great disagreement.

In years past, Europeans came to the United States to study our prisons. Alexis de Tocqueville, for example, came here in the nineteenth century. No more.

American incarceration rates remained stable from 1925 to 1975, about 110 prisoners per 100,000 population, although those numbers did not include prisoners in state and local jails. Then a movement began to get tough on crime in the late 1970’s. That’s when the numbers mushroomed.

Maybe American crime is different. Although the assault rate is approximately the same in London and New York, the murder rate is much higher in New York. Some experts opine that the greater availability of guns contributes to this. Regardless, the United States has lower rates of burglary and robbery than Canada, England, and Australia.

The “war on drugs” has been a major contributor to the high rate of lock up in the United States. The numbers are clear. From the 40,000 imprisoned in American jails and prisons for drug crimes, this number has grown to 500,000.

Regardless the relative numbers of prisoners in America and the other nations of the world, differences in length of sentence are what truly distinguishes us. That is what gives us more prisoners. Several European countries send more people to prison each year per capita than the United States. But those prisoners get out sooner. Since American prisoners stay in prison longer, the cumulative number becomes much larger over time.

Some experts believe it is the American method that is working, making American more safe. Finding causes for effects in big countries is always elusive, of course. The crime rates in Canada over the last 40 years have risen and fallen pretty much parallel with those in the United States. Imprisonment in Canada, however, has remained stable.

Other experts believe that the higher incarceration rates in the United States are the result of popularly-elected judges responding to the demands of the public. The public always wants more and longer punishment, believing this will lower crime. The lessons from other countries is not so clear on that.

I think it’s time to reevaluate our concentration on being “tough on crime” and look to other programs such as non-mandatory faith based rehabilitative programs.

Marijuana in New York and Police Deception

May 5, 2008

Thirty years ago the State of New York decided it would quit jailing people for possession of small amounts of marijuana. Those caught with small amounts, instead of being arrested, jailed, and prosecuted for a crime, would be issued a summons and face the same maximum as those accused of improper use of a bicycle: a $100 fine

So much for the law. How about law enforcement? The police in New York City have had other ideas. There are two exceptions to New York law in the treatment of marijuana with a small fine: Anyone caught with “burning” marijuana or with marijuana “open to public view” faces a misdemeanor criminal charge.

Low level marijuana arrests in New York City remain very high. This is while all crime in the city has declined by about sixty percent in the last three decades. Paul Brown, the New York City Police Department’s chief spokesman, states “Attention to marijuana and lower-level crime in general has helped drive crime down.” The opposite view is taken by Harry Levine, a sociologist at Queens College. He says the only research on the issue suggests that marijuana arrests have played little role in reducing the general crime rate.

A study just released shows a strong racial bent to these marijuana police arrests between 1998 and 2007. In that period 374,900 people were arrested with the most serious crime being misdemeanor possession of marijuana. That is eight times the number of arrests on those same charges in the period between 1988 and 1997, when 45,300 people were arrested. Also found in the study of the 1998 to 2007 period: 90 per cent of those arrested were men, and 83 percent were black or Latino. Whites, who are 35 percent of the City’s population, were only 15 percent of those charged, even though federal surveys show that whites are more likely than blacks or Latinos to use marijuana.

How do the police arrest 374,900 for marijuana possession when it must be found either “burning” or ‘open to public view?”. A 25-year old white man who appeared last week in Manhattan Criminal Court explained how he had come to be charged with possession of marijuana. He had come out of a building when an unmarked car came right up to him. An officer got out and told him to “give him the weed.” The police officer said: “Give me the weed now and I will give you a summons, or we can search your vehicle and can take you in.” The 25- year-old took the offer. He opened the console of his vehicle and handed the marijuana to the police officers – making it “open to public view”.

This deception is legal. But does this make you wonder about police officers who every day, as a matter of professional routine, tells lies so they can “catch criminals”? Since they explain their routine lying as justified by the higher purpose of stopping crime, would not the same rationale justify their lying when they testify in court while under oath? When their professional success depends so heavily on uttering lies, when so much of their lives is devoted to uttering falsehoods, can they really resist the temptation to tell a lie here or there or everywhere in court when the success of their cases might depend on it, when no one knows they are lying but they themselves (and the criminal on trial, of course, whom no one will believe)?

This is an example of how much the “deck is stacked” against anyone accused, even those who are innocent of a crime. That’s why anyone who is charged with possession or any other crime, should take the situation very seriously and seek out the best criminal defense possible. I urge anyone in that position to visit my site at to learn how to find the best lawyer for your case.