Americans: Stars in Bars

Does our high incarceration rate represent the right kind of toughness?

For Americans tired of hearing how we lag behind other developed nations in teaching children math, science, and reading, a new report highlights an area where the United States is indisputably a world leader. According to the Pew Center on the States, the U.S. has a higher incarceration rate than any other country. In your face, Finland!

I exaggerate the response to the report slightly. But some conservatives did react to the news that one out of 99 American adults is behind bars with equanimity, if not pride. "When I see a headline about a record incarceration rate, I'm glad," wrote National Review Senior Editor Ramesh Ponnuru on his Washington Post blog. "Aren't you?"

No, I'm not. If the U.S. were locking up more people than other countries simply because it had a higher crime rate, the number of prisoners in itself would not necessarily be cause for concern. The problem is that it's locking up many people for longer than is appropriate and many people who do not belong in prison at all, including half a million drug offenders.

The Pew Center may not be right that the United States has a higher incarceration rate than countries like China and Cuba, whose official figures should be viewed with skepticism. Still, the U.S. undeniably imprisons a much larger share of its population than other democracies: about 750 per 100,000 people, more than twice the rates in Ukraine, Estonia, and Latvia; more than five times the rates in Spain, Scotland, and the Netherlands; and more than 10 times the rates in Denmark, Italy, and Finland.

But so what? Maybe we have a bigger crime problem, a more sensibly tough response to it, or both. "The fact that we have a large prison population by itself is not a central problem," the criminologist James Q. Wilson told The Washington Post, "because it has contributed to the extraordinary increase in public safety we have had in this country."

When the government incarcerates people who are guilty only of consensual "crimes," however, it wastes scarce prison space that could be used to incapacitate predatory criminals. That compromises public safety rather than enhancing it.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that drug offenders account for about 25 percent of local jail inmates, 21 percent of state prisoners, and 55 percent of federal prisoners. Since 1980 the number of drug offenders in state prisons has increased by 1,200 percent, more than four times the increase in violent offenders.

Drug warriors tend to conflate these two categories. "These offenders are often violent criminals who are likely to repeat their criminal activities," Attorney General Michael Mukasey said in a February 25 speech to the Fraternal Order of Police, describing the prisoners who could benefit from retroactive changes to the federal sentencing guidelines for crack offenses, the first of whom were freed this week.

According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, however, only one in 10 federal crack offenses involves violence or the threat of violence. Mukasey obscured this point by saying "nearly 80 percent of those eligible for retroactivity have a prior criminal record."

A prior record is not the same as a history of violence. Research conducted by criminologist John DiIulio, economist Anne Morrison Piehl, and sociologist Bert Useem in the late 1990s found that many, if not most, people sentenced for drug crimes in New York, Arizona, and New Mexico were "drug-only offenders," meaning the only crimes they'd ever committed involved the voluntary exchange of politically incorrect intoxicants for money.

As James Q. Wilson himself has observed, imprisoning those people does not reduce the total number of drug dealers, since others quickly take their place. Worse, it leaves less prison space for the robbers, rapists, and murderers who represent a genuine threat to public safety. With limited resources, politicians face an unavoidable but rarely acknowledged tradeoff between being tough on drugs and being tough on crime.

© Copyright 2008 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

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  • ||

    joe wins this thread.

    That's 68,799 - 0 (but who's counting?)

  • Episiarch||

    Maybe we should just create a 50-foot wall around Manhattan and put all the "criminals" in there for life.

    I just hope nobody important ever crashes in there in a plane, because then we might have to send in a dangerous ex-special forces criminal to get them out in exchange for a pardon.

  • ||

    Here's what gets me about this story:
    Penitentiaries were invented in about 1820. People were so excited about their potential, Alexis de Toqueville came here in 1830 to write about them. By 1850, everybody realized they were a flop... as far as reforming people.
    So here we are. 2008 and more people incarcerated than ever.
    Talk about institutional momentum!

  • ||

    Episiarch,

    that's crazy talk. Everyone knows that criminals belong in a newly created island of Los Angeles proper which will soon be breaking off into the ocean. Of course, there are pitfalls there too.

  • Episiarch||

    LIT,

    Maybe we could use a previously private island instead, and call it Absolom. The inmates can attempt to build a society there if they wish.

    Sometimes it's difficult to decide how to create a society of criminals, you know?

  • ||

    Ah screw it, just dump them on a large land mass with easily defeatable locals and let them build the third wealthiest English speaking nation.

  • ||

    Episiarch,

    Sometimes it's difficult to decide how to create a society of criminals, you know?

    We could try just throwing them all into a series of gigantic, guarded compounds and...

    oh, wait...

  • ||

    No one, except us libertarians apparently, are ashamed enough to do anything about these hideous statistics. The only way this is ever going to be changed is because the taxpayers cannot bear the tax burden for maintaining such a large population.


    I am afraid this is only going to get worse. We have a huge economy that probably has enough flexibility left to bear the burden of more prisoners.


    Please don't forget that some of the people who don't deserve to be in prison are people who didn't do the crime.

  • ||

    NEW RULE:
    The country with the highest incarceration rate in the world can't have "..land of the free.." in it's national anthem.
    Seriously, this country has an unrealistic view of crime and punishment. Too many people want to use the legal code for moral posturing, and if they can get 51% of the people to agee with them, they have no problem with incarcerating hunderds of thousands of people to make their point.
    Laws don't "send a message" to kids. They put adults in jail.

  • ||

    I join with Dogzilla's New Rule. You can't call yourself the "land of the free" when your not. After a while it just gets sort of patronizing.

  • stuartl||

    ...found that many, if not most, people sentenced for drug crimes in New York, Arizona, and New Mexico were "drug-only offenders," meaning the only crimes they'd ever committed involved the voluntary exchange of politically incorrect intoxicants for money.

    Many, if not most = 50%? Without actual numbers, my BS detector (I always try to flip statistics to understand them) turned this into -- Many, if not most, people sentenced for drug crimes in New York, Arizona, and New Mexico were NOT "drug-only offenders," meaning that they had committed other crimes and were potentially dangerous criminals.

    Disclaimer, I am not in favor of most drug laws, however I think the statistics should and can be presented more clearly. The emphasis should be on the percentage of drug offenders who are not violent criminals. If that number is high, switch the argument to a rights issue, not a numbers issues. Or argue that doing drugs keeps them from committing more serious felonies, or whatever.

  • ||

    Dogzilla is right. Maybe we should open a larger facility on Guantanamo, or build prisons in some offshore site so that America proper remains the land of the free.

  • Episiarch||

    Lamar, I proposed that at 9:39.

  • stuartl||

    damn -- I meant to say "...the percentage of drug offenders who are violent criminals. If that number is high, ..."

  • ||

    I suppose another this problem could be fixed would be a "Richard Nixon going to China" moment. Say someone like William Bennent coming out and saying that we need to change. Of course Bill Bennent is probably a bad example since he has the moral vacuity (or is it vacuousness?) of a light bulb and hasn't, apparently, heard of the vices of gluttony and gambling. (Sorry for the adhominem.)

  • ||

    Episiarch: I know you are, but what am I?

  • Episiarch||

    I'm rubber, you're glue. Whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you.

  • anonymous||

    I'm rubber, you're glue. Whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you.

    xkcd.com

  • ||

    Laws don't "send a message" to kids.

    Sure they do. The message is "do whatever is necessary not to get caught, or you're fucked. Therefore, you should engage in more dangerous behavior in order to avoid even harsher penalties."

  • ||

    Other messages laws send to kids:

    This society is run by heartless, soulless, dirtbags who think nothing of grinding other peoples lives into dust over a trifle, so long as it puffs up their place in society.

    The laws of this society are arbitrary and capricious, have no inherent legitimacy, and are not deserving of your respect.

  • ||

    Sometimes it's difficult to decide how to create a society of criminals, you know?

    Oh, I dunno. Just check the local statehouse.

  • h-dawg||

    Well said RC, on both counts.

  • Ventifact||

    Gosh. I don't like the Drug War.

  • ||

    I propose we change "Drug War" to "Politically incorrect intoxicating substance war"

  • ||

    It's 2008 people. Where are the interplanetary slave-shuttles to the mines on Mars?

    We, as a nation, are so retarded, we can't even have the interplanetary shuttles and we have people locked up who are not mining other planets.

    I want my fare for this life refunded, IMMEDIATELY.

  • ||

    "When the government incarcerates people who are guilty only of consensual "crimes," however, it wastes scarce prison space that could be used to incapacitate predatory criminals. That compromises public safety rather than enhancing it."

    As a career prosecutor I can't stress enough how accurate that statement is. How the "war on drugs" still manages to curry the support of "mainstream" America defies imagination.

  • ||

    Stevo-o,That's good to hear.Some is generational.My father would rail against 'dope smoking hippies' while drinking Blue Ribbon with his friends.Most people I know my age are against the WOD and I live in a heavily republican area.

  • ||

    "Jacob Sullum asks what our imprisonment figures really say about American justice."

    The imprisonment figures say that those making and enforcing the laws are more interested in protecting us from victimless, nonviolent behaviors than protecting us from violent offenders.

  • ||

    "How the "war on drugs" still manages to curry the support of "mainstream" America defies imagination."

    When a business like "Drug Testing" can be in a stand alone building paying rent and making a profit to test people for "illegal" substances, that's how.

    When most people are so willingly bought and trained like seals to pee for their masters on command, for a job which will be outsourced at their masters' pleasure.

    When no one sits down and thinks about the liberties and financial costs which are sacrificed at the altar of the war on some drugs.

  • P.HARI PRASAD||

    THIS IS TO NICE

  • concerned citizen||

    Is it not the most striking aspect of this study that so many Americans are committing crimes? I doubt we are just better at catching criminals, but it seems likely that we are better at manufacturing criminals. Even if some laws are unjust, it's still true that we have a very high rate of murder, even compared with "developing nations", and that we have an insane number of rapists. I blame the criminals for their actions and the country for (not) educating them.

  • Yuri||

    Your country had 5 school shootings in one week. Americans are overflowing with hatred for one another and for other people of the world. It is not surprising that so many Americans belong in prison and certainly not enough of you are.

    But in reality you are afraid to walk your streets at night because your country is so dangerous. Even the police are afraid to travel to many areas, so it is really like you are all in prison after all.

    Your country is spending more on prisons than on schools and your students score lower than Russia, China and 27 other developed countries. You better start building more prisons because the next generation of Americans will be worse than this one. You will not be able to trust your own grandchildren because they will be so evil.

  • ||

    Whoa, whoa, Yuri. While our country suffers from so many of the aforementioned problems, it's still not actually like living a John Carpenter movie (at least not for most of us, yet).

  • Kdog||

    Before the widespread use of penitentiaries, imprisonment was still a common punishment, it was simple done in local jails (along with people awaiting trial) or in the feudal lord's dungeon. It is misleading to suggest that penitentiaries are something new, as though they were not an extension of earlier ideas.

    I do agree that the idea of rehabilitation has been a virtually unmitigated failure, and drug treatment has proven a categorical failure. I would prefer to see Americans turn an eye towards Singapore, which had possibly the highest ever drug addiction rate when it achieved independence from Britain (and was thrown out of Malaysia). Yet in a very short time (just over ten years) they essentially solved their drug problem through the extensive use of the death penalty. We should look into similar measures.

  • JohnD||

    All drug based crimes should result in the druggies being all locked up together and given unlimited drugs.

    We can come back in a few months and see if anyone has survived. If so, we give them more drugs.

  • wang||

    Oh, I met several man eat the drug! o, my god! why do they do that!

  • Nike Dunk Low||

    is good

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