The gap between American justice and that of the rest of the world is enormous and growing

Xeni Jardin notes that it’s official: more than 1% of the US population is now in jail or prison. The stats one finds can be a little confusing because of that particular US distinction (between jail (a remand facility for those awaiting trial or convicted of misdemeanours) and prison (convicted criminals only)), but most studies find between 750 to 800 persons imprisoned per 100,000 US populace. Other nations treat jail/gaol and prison as synonyms, so their incarceration rates may well include those held on remand or for misdemeanours, making the difference in figures between the US and other countries even more striking.

During 2007, the U.S. prison population increased by more than 25,000 inmates to almost 1.6 million inmates, and local jails throughout the United States held 723,131 inmates at the end of 2007.

That’s 2.3 million people incarcerated.

Here’s a graph comparing imprisonment rates by nation in 2000 and 2006, at which time the USA rate was still substantially under 1% (although ranking in the top 5 with the US and Russia way ahead of Singapore, Thailand and South Africa):

International Imprisonment Rates
Source: The Victorian State Governments Sentencing Advisory Council

By comparison, the totalitarian state of China ranks between Australia and Canada, all hovering at just over 0.1% incarceration rates (Note: China has missing people from its statistics too – the hundreds of thousands in “administrative detention” for political dissent).

From the International Herald Tribune:

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.

Whatever the reason, the gap between American justice and that of the rest of the world is enormous and growing.

Certainly, violent crime in the US has gone down since the incarceration rates started to climb in the 1970s. But violent crime has decreased in other Western nations as well, without them having to increase their incarceration rates. Has the American legislative/judicial system merely become addicted to punitive sentencing? Has the Prison Industrial Complex become so large that its lobbyists are setting a punitive agenda? What exactly is going on?

Categories: ethics & philosophy, law & order

2 replies

  1. Nice one for highlighting this. It’s frikkin frightening! Prison is so so profitable in America. Cheap labour, exciting markets in stab proof vests and taser guns, prison building complexes. I dunno if you’ve read it, but Nils Christie’s Crime Control as Industry is one of the best/scariest books I’ve read on the subject.
    Those figures are a bit mad though. I’m from Ireland, and we rank down the bottom. I think that graph might be based on the average daily population. We have a low daily population, but we commit more people to prison every year than most other countries, but we just give em real short sentences. So our daily looks good, but our annual is poxy. Tricksy little Irishes.

  2. The astonishing length of prison sentences in the USA for offences that in other countries only involve short sentences or community service is a major reason for the huge numbers on US inmates.
    If Ireland is sentencing a lot of people to 30-90 day sentences for minor lawbreaking, at least it’s better than the 3-5 years that some US citizens are getting for exactly the same offences.

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