The U.S. is Number One — in Imprisonment Rates

by Peggy McGuinness

Andrew Sullivan notes here the release of the Kings College London annual report on rates of imprisonment around the world. Here is the link. Sullivan summarizes:

The rates are given as the number of prison inmates per 100,000 people in the population at large. It’s pretty staggering that by far the highest rates of imprisonment occur in the U.S. The U.S. rate is 724 for every 100,000 people – up from 505 in 1992. Of major countries, the only close competitor is Russia with 581, and Cuba at 487. Iran and Israel, to give examples of countries with internal conflict, clock in at 206 and 209 respectively. Most major U.S. allies are in the 130 range or lower. I’m not sure what any of this proves. But this much we can say: the land of the free is also the land of the unfree. Millions of them. Texas, by the way, has an imprisonment rate of well over 1,000. There’s no country on the planet – no dictatorship on earth – as comfortable with locking people up as the state of Texas. The detention policies of the current administration may be more understandable in this context.

Do rates of imprisonment mean anything in measuring how free a society is? By the measure of political freedom and civil liberties put out by Freedom House, the USA is “free” but many of the other high-incarceration-rate nations (Iran, N. Korea, Cuba, Russia) rate as “not free.” The methodology of the Freedom House report takes into account equality before law and due process, but does not, as far as I know, take overall incarceration rates or disparate impact of the criminal justice system into account. I am with Sullivan in not knowing entirely what conclusions to draw from this statistical “achievement” of the United States. It is certainly clear that our culture tolerates having a much larger portion of our population imprisoned than any other democracy.

5 Responses

  1. For now let me say thanks so much for ‘the link,’ as there are some valuable resources there in addition to the report. Grading papers at present (by the way, is it just me, or are students’ abilities and skills in spelling, grammar, and composition in precipituous decline?) so I’ll have to comment (thus everyone’s forewarned) later tomorrow: I won’t be bashful about either the causal variables at play here nor what conclusions one might draw.

  2. of course it’s ‘precipitous’

  3. U.S. Leads World In Imprisonment Rates

    Kings College in London ran the numbers, and it seems that the United States has the highest imprisonment rate. Putting criminals in lockup on such a consistent and fair basis is probably cause for pride, but Andrew Sullivan is a…

  4. Well, fatigue finds me leaving the comments and possible conclusions to others. I’ve hastily assembled a short bibliography on “criminal law, punishment and prisons” if anyone is interested. Just e-mail me and I’ll send it along.

    ‘Criminal conduct is no lower class monopoly, but is distributed throughout the social spectrum. Indeed, whilst “street crimes” and burglary attract the most attention, the less visible crimes of the powerful may be argued to produce significantly greater social harm, in terms of both monetary loss and of physical injury and death. But the same is not true of the distribution of punishment, which falls, overwhelmingly and systematically, on the poor and the disadvantaged. Discriminatory decision-making throughout the whole criminal justice system ensures that the socially advantaged are routinely filtered out: they are given the benefit of the doubt, or are defined as good risks, or simply have access to the best legal advice. Serious, deep-end punishments such as imprisonment are predominantly reserved for the unemployed, the poor, the homeless, the mentally ill, the addicted, and those who lack social support and personal assets. Increasingly, this class bias has taken on a racial complexion, as disadvantaged minority groups come to be massively over-represented in the prison population and on death row.’

    –Antony Duff and David Garland

    ‘The dramatic increase in resources devoted to the punishment of crime in recent years’ should take cognizance of the fact ‘expanding punishment resources will have more effect on cases of marginal seriousness rather than those that provoke the greatest degree of citizen fear. The result is that when fear of lethal violence is translated into a general campaign against crime, the major share of extra resources will directed at nonviolent behavior.’ [….] [C]rime crackdowns have their most dramatic impact on less serious offenses that are close to the margin between incarceration and more lenient penal sanctions. The pattern of nonviolent offenses absorbing the overwhelming majority of resources in crime crackdowns can be clearly demonstrated in the recent history of criminal justice policy in the United States. During the decade 1980-1990, for example, the state of California experienced what might be described as the mother of all crime crackdowns. In ten years, the number of persons imprisoned in California quadrupled, and the population of those incarcerated in the state’s prisons and jails increased by over 100,000.’

    –Franklin E. Zimring and Gordon Hawkins

    ‘For those who wonder why both violence and the rate of imprisonment increased in the late 1980s, we present the parable of the bait-and-switch advertisement. [….] The “bait-and-switch” character of anticrime crusades occurs in the contrast between the kind of crime that is featured in the appeals to “get tough” and the type of offender who is usually on the receiving end of the more severe sanctions. The “bait” for anticrime crusades is citizen fear of violent crime. Willie Horton is the poster boy in the usual law and order campaign. But the number of convicted violent predators who are not already sent to prison is rather small. In the language of “bate-and-switch” merchandising, the advertised special is unavailable when the customer arrives at the store. The only available targets for escalation in imprisonment policy are the marginal offenders and offense categories. If an increase in severity is to be accomplished, the target of the policy must be “switched.” Nonviolent offenders go to prison and citizens wonder why rates of violence continue to increase.”

    –Franklin E. Zimring and Gordon Hawkins

    ‘If asked to describe the major changes in penal policy in the last thirty years, most insiders would undoubtedly mention “the decline of the rehabilitative ideal”….’ But we might also discuss the ‘fading of correctionalist and welfarist rationales for criminal justice interventions; the reduced emphasis upon rehabilitation as the goal of penal institutions; and changes in sentencing law that uncouple participation in treatment programmes from the length of sentence served. “[R]ehabilitative” programmes do continue to operate in prisons and elsewhere, with treatment particularly targeted towards “high risk individuals” such as sex offenders, drug addicts, and violent offenders. And the 1990s have seen a resurgence of interest in “what works?” research that challenges some of the more pessimistic conclusions of the 1970s. But today, rehabilitation programmes no longer claim to express the overarching ideology of the system, not even to the leading purpose of any penal measure. Sentencing law is no longer shaped by correctional concerns such as indeterminacy and early release. And the rehabilitative possibilities of criminal justice matters are routinely subordinated to other penal goals, particularly retribution, incapacitation, and the management of risk. [….] For most of the twentieth century, penalties that appeared explicitly retributive or deliberately harsh were widely criticized as anachronisms that had no place within a “modern” penal system. In the last twenty years, however, we have seen the reappearance of “just deserts” retribution as a generalized policy goal in the US and the UK, initially prompted by the perceived unfairness of individualized sentencing. [….] In a small but symbolically significant number of instances we have seen the re-emergence of decidedly “punitive” measures such as the death penalty, chain gangs, and corporal punishment. [….] Forms of public shaming and humiliation that for decades have been regarded as obsolete and excessively demeaning are valued by their political proponents today precisely because of their unambiguously punitive character. [….] The feelings of the victim, or the victim’s family, or a fearful, outraged public are now routinely invoked in support of new laws and penal policies. There has been a noticeable change in the tone of official discourse. Punishment—in the sense of expressive punishment, conveying public sentiment—is once again a respectable, openly embraced, penal purpose and has come to affect not just high-end sentences for the most heinous offences but even juvenile justice and community penalties. The language of condemnation and punishment has re-entered official discourse and what purports to the “expression of public sentiment” has frequently taken priority over the professional judgment of penological experts.’

    –David Garland

    ‘A highly charged political discourse now surrounds all crime control issues, so that every decision is taken in the glare of publicity and public contention and every mistake becomes a scandal. The policy-making process has become profoundly politicized and populist. Policy measures are constructed in ways that appear to value political advantage and public opinion over the views of experts and the evidence of research. The professional groups who once dominated the policy-making process are increasingly disenfranchised as policy comes to be formulated by political action committees and political advisers. New initiatives are announced in political settings…and are encapsulated in sound-bit statements: “Prison works,” “Three-strikes and you’re out,” “Truth in sentencing,” “No frills prisons,” “Adult time for adult crime,” “Zero-tolerance,” “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime.” There is now a distinctly populist current in penal politics that denigrates expert and professional elites and claims the authority of “the people,” of common sense, of “getting back to basics.” The dominant voice of crime policy is no longer the expert or even the practitioner but that of the long-suffering, ill-served people—especially of “the victim” and the fearful, anxious members of the public.’

    –David Garland

    ‘One of the most significant developments of the last two decades has been the emergence of a new style of criminological thinking that has succeeded in attracting the interest of government officials. With the fading of correctionalist rationales for criminal justice, and in the face of the crime-control predicament, officials have increasingly discovered an elective affinity between their own practical concerns and this new genre of criminological discourse. This new genre—which might be termed the new criminologies of everyday life—has barely impinged upon public attention, but it has functioned as a crucial support for much recent policy. [….] The new criminologies of everyday life are a set of cognate theoretical frameworks that include routine activity theory, crime as opportunity, lifestyle analysis, situational crime prevention, and some versions of rational choice theory. The striking thing about these various criminologies is that they each begin from the premise that crime is a normal, commonplace, aspect of modern society. Crime is regarded as a generalized form of behaviour, routinely produced but the normal patterns of social and economic life in contemporary society. To commit an offence thus requires no special motivation or disposition, no abnormality or pathology. In contrast to earlier criminologies, which begin from the premise that crime was a deviation from normal civilized conduct and was explicable in terms of individual pathology or faulty socialization, the new criminologies see crime as continuous with normal social interaction and explicable by reference to standard motivational patterns. Crime comes to be viewed as a routine risk to be calculated or an accident to be avoided, rather than a moral aberration that needs to be specially explained.’

    –David Garland

    ‘The prison is used today as a kind of reservation, a quarantine zone in which purportedly dangerous individuals are segregated in the name of public safety. In the USA, the system that is taking form resembles nothing so much as the Soviet gulag—a string of work camps and prisons strung across a vast country, housing two million people most of whom are drawn from classes and racial groups that have become politically and economically problematic. The prison-community border is heavily patrolled and carefully monitored to prevent risks leaking out from one to the other. Those offenders who are released “into the community” are subject to much tighter control than previously, and frequently find themselves returned to custody for failure to comply with the conditions that continue to restrict their freedom. For many of these parolees and ex-convicts, the “community” into which they are released is actually a closely monitored terrain, a supervised space, lacking much of the liberty one associates with “normal life.” This transformation of the prison-community relationship is closely related to the transformation of work. The disappearance of entry-level jobs for young “underclass” males, together with the depleted social capital of impoverished families and crime-prone neighbourhoods, has meant that the prison and parole now lack the social supports upon which their rehabilitative efforts had previously relied. Work, social welfare, and family support used to be the means whereby ex-prisoners were reintegrated into mainstream society. With the decline of these resources, imprisonment has become a longer-term assignment from which individuals have little prospect of returning to an unsupervised freedom.’

    –David Garland

    ‘In the whole country, 75 per cent of drug users are estimated to be white and around 15 per cent black, yet blacks account for “35 per cent of all drug arrests, 55 per cent of all drug convictions, and 74 percent of all the sentences for drug arrests.” [….] The discrepancy between outcomes for blacks and whites can be further explained by the way in which “jury commissioners and lawyers have long engaged in discriminatory practices that result in disproportionately white juries.” If all else fails, the venue can be changed, as in the example of a particularly brutal assault on a black prisoner by white policemen: on the ground that everybody in New York City would be “biased,” the case was moved to upstate New York. The point is that, even if white jurors are not guilty of crude racial prejudice, their experience of the police is likely to have been far more benign than that of blacks, so they are strongly inclined to believe them. [….] The net result of the discrepancies between the treatment of black and white adults is that blacks are three times more likely than whites to be imprisoned if arrested and get on the average a six-month longer sentence for the same offence. [….] Since blacks are convicted of more felonies than whites (for all the reasons we have seen), they are by far the most affected by “three strikes” laws. Thus “in California…blacks make up 7 per cent of the general population, yet as of 1996 they accounted for 43 per cent of the third-strike defendants sent to prison. The consequence of the cumulative disadvantages suffered by blacks is an astonishing rate of incarceration: it is “higher than the total incarceration rate in the Soviet Union at the zenith of the Gulag and in South Africa at the height of the anti-apartheid struggle.” “On any given day upwards of one third of African-American men in their twenties find themselves behind bars, on probation or on parole. And at the core of the formerly industrial cities of the North, this proportion often exceeds two thirds.” “One [black] male out of every twenty-one [is in prison] and one of nine between [the ages of] twenty and thirty-four.” The proportion went on rising since this was written in 2002, and a year later stood at 12 per cent for this age group, compared to 1.6 for white men. Ominously for the future of black communities, “one of every fourteen black children [had] a parent who [was] behind bars” even several years ago, so the proportion might be higher now. [….] The process of cumulative disadvantage rolls on after release from prison. So far from getting a helping hand, ex-prisoners are given a vicious boot to keep them down. “Without a college degree, former prisoners have little chance of earning more than a minimum wage. Even low-skilled jobs are difficult to obtain for anybody with a felony record.” Discrimination is easy and perfectly legal: in many states, the prison administrations have “put their entire databases on-line, thus making it possible for employers and landlords to discriminate against ex-convicts with full legal impunity.” Convicts may be specifically prohibited by federal laws from getting any list of jobs such as plumbing or barbering. They are also prohibited by federal law from living in public housing, even visiting friends and relatives who live in public housing. [….] Finally, having survived jail and parole, ex-prisoners in fourteen states are denied one of the basic rights of citizenship—the right to vote—for the rest of their lives. In this, the USA is “far out of line with international norms: no other democratic nation bars ex-offenders from voting for life.” The impact of this on blacks is, of course, grossly disproportionate to their numbers: “[F]elony disenfranchisement among black males is seven times the national average, and in Alabama and Florida, 31 per cent of black men are permanently disenfranchised.”’

    –Brian Barry

    ‘[T]hree-quarters of the spectacular growth in the prison population can be attributed to the “war on drugs,” which is a complete failure on its own terms: it has been estimated that the availability and purity of cocaine and other drugs are greater than before it started. At the same time, “the rate of murder, robbery, assault, and other types of violation has declined in the last decade.” Yet in that same period, “there has been a marked increase in accounting and corporate infractions, fraud in health care, government procurement and bankruptcy, identity theft, illegal corporate espionage and intellectual piracy.” One really good corporate fraud can net the lifetime proceeds of many thousands of those who are currently serving long jail sentences for theft. [….] The ethos, the prosecutors and the judges today are much more like those of the 1920s: sympathetic to business and contemptuous of blacks. Financial malfeasance on a massive scale is, of course, the preserve of those in relatively privileged positions—some, like company directors, already immensely rich, but greedy enough to manipulate the prices of their stock so as to maximize their share options. If there were ever a group of people of whom it could be said that they chose to commit crimes voluntarily—free of financial necessity, well educated and full aware of the nature of their acts—it would be the perpetrators of these swindles. But they either get off scot-free or are given punishments that are extraordinarily light (often no more than paying back their ill-gotten gains), in relation to the scale of their misdeeds and the number of lives ruined by their actions: those, for example, whose life savings have been lost, like the employees of Enron whose occupational pensions simply disappeared. As the founder of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners said: “The message is clear in the mind of the better-educated public that, if you want to commit a crime, fraud is the way to go…. The take is better, and the punishment is generally less.”’

    –Brian Barry

  5. In the third set of comments from Garland above, the following sentence is corrected (‘by’ for ‘but’):

    ‘Crime is regarded as a generalized form of behaviour, routinely produced by the normal patterns of social and economic life in contemporary society.’

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