The American Method of Imprisoning

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.


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