Are U.S. Incarceration Policies Worse Than China's?

I know what you're thinking: Two posts about the new report on the U.S. incarceration rate are not enough; we really need at least three. Your wish is my command. I actually do have a couple points to add to what Ron Bailey and Radley Balko have already said.

First, in the process of criticizing the U.S. criminal justice system, whose numbers are pretty reliable, let's be careful not to minimize the oppressive policies of countries like China and Cuba, whose numbers may be fictitious. In its report, the Pew Center on the States says:

The United States incarcerates more people than any country in the world, including the far more populous nation of China. At the start of the new year, the American penal system held more than 2.3 million adults. China was second, with 1.5 million people behind bars.

The Washington Post highlights the same comparison in the second paragraph of its story about the report, saying "the United States leads the world in both the number and percentage of residents it incarcerates, leaving far-more-populous China a distant second."

The source for the Chinese estimate is the International Centre for Prison Studies at King's College in London, which in turn relied on the Chinese government's numbers. I don't think I'm going out on a limb by suggesting that we should be skeptical of anything a totalitarian-cum-authoritarian government says about touchy, potentially embarrassing issues like how many of its citizens it imprisons. The official number at the end of 2005 was 1,565,771, but the King's College report says that does not include "more than 500,000 serving administrative detention in re-education-through-labour camps," according to the Chinese government's own count; "350,000 in a second type of administrative detention...for drug offenders and prostitutes," according to a U.S. State Department estimate; or pre-trial detainees, whose number "is not known but has been estimated at about 100,000." Assuming those numbers are correct (a big assumption), "the total prison population in China is about 2,500,000." That still gives the U.S. a higher incarceration rate, but not a higher total number of prisoners. And if the Chinese government actually had a few million people in re-education camps, instead of the half a million it claims, how would we know?

My second point is related to the first: China's incarceration policies are a scandal not because of the sheer number of people it locks up but because they are locked up unjustly, often for "crimes" like criticizing the government. Likewise, I have to partly agree with criminologist James Q. Wilson, who tells the Post, "The fact that we have a large prison population by itself is not a central problem because it has contributed to the extraordinary increase in public safety we have had in this country." 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 is locking up many people for longer than is appropriate and many people who do not belong in prison at all, including nearly half a million drug offenders. When the government locks up people who are guilty only of consensual "crimes," it wastes scarce prison space that could be used to incapacitate predatory criminals, thereby compromising public safety rather than enhancing it.

"The idea," says Rick Kern, director of the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission, "is to make a distinction between the people we're afraid of and the ones we're just ticked off at." He hastens to add: "Not that you shouldn't punish them. But if it's going to cost $27,500 a year to keep them locked up, then maybe we should be smarter about how we do it." People like Kern are far from contemplating the possibility that being ticked off at people over things like exchanging drugs or sex for money might not be a good enough reason to punish them at all. But at least they are beginning to understand the tradeoffs involved.

Back in 1999, I explained why a criminologist who used to say "let 'em rot" started saying "let 'em go."

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  • kinnath||

    Having been to mainland china, one could argue that the Chinese government has severl billion people in prison.

  • ||

    Re-education camps for those who deny the consensus approved by the political elites, you say? The wily Chinaman shows us the way, once more.

  • Episiarch||

    We may have experienced a drop in crime because we are in fact putting most of the actually bad criminals in prison, but along with many people who should not be there.

    "Better that 100 innocent people go to prison rather than let one guilty one go free" is a horribly illiberal policy, but it would reduce crime, I would think.

    And judging by Radley's work, that seems to be the modus operandi of our justice system.

  • Jennifer||

    "Better that 100 innocent people go to prison rather than let one guilty one go free" is a horribly illiberal policy, but it would reduce crime, I would think. And judging by Radley's work, that seems to be the modus operandi of our justice system.

    No, it's "better 100 innocent people go to prison than the cops and prosecutors admit they can't find the guilty party."

  • ||

    camps for those who deny the consensus approved by the political elites, you say?

    That's what all prisons are.

    You've accidentally phrased that very well.

  • ed||

    North Korea has only 17 people in prison.
    They said so.

  • ||

    China might also have artificially low incarceration rates simply because of the execution rates. I need to do more research, but I've heard from people living in China that it is not uncommon for a suspect to be arrested, tried, have an appeal, and then be executed in under three weeks. That certainly would lower incarceration rates.

  • ||

    camps for those who deny the consensus approved by the political elites, you say?

    That's what all prisons are.



    No, you're just a moron.

  • Ska||

    I usually don't find those kind of remarks funny.


    Usually.

  • ||

    The wily Chinaman shows us the way, once more.

    Got the Steve Martin reference.

  • ||

    Answering the titular question:
    No.

    For all the reasons noted above. It's meaningless to compare our numbers with the numbers published by nations that prevent third-party verification. Which means we can only meaningfully compoare ourselves to other reasonably open societies. Which just means we look even worse.

  • ||

    Andrew,
    You almost beat me to it. My question would also be: how many people die in prison in China - and wouldn't that be relevant to the statistic on how many are in prison in any given time?

  • ||

    Incarceration for criticizing the government is unjust, yet so is incarceration for marijuana.

  • ||

    The Chinese execute a lot of their prisoners and like many authoritarian societies may not imprison much.

  • ||

    The Chinese government locks people up in order to protect the Chinese government. The United States government locks (many) people up to (it claims) protect the people it is locking up. I honestly don't know which is worse. At least the Chinese government can say it is acting in self-defense, no?

  • ||

    Whatever the cause is (I'm thinking the drug war/mandatory minimums play a big part) this is pretty fucking embarrassing for the United States.

  • Rhywun||

    The United States government locks (many) people up to (it claims) protect the people it is locking up.

    If I'm parsing this correctly, are you referring to drug crimes? I don't think anyone believes we're putting drug users in prison to "protect" them. Right? What kind of sick, twisted individual thinks that way? Never mind, don't answer.

  • Dave||

    Radley mentioned nonviolent drug offenders briefly, but I don't think anyone, particularly libertarians, should get far into their criticism of our prison system without talking about the devastating effect it has on both minorities and, as I already mentinoed, nonviolent drug offenders.

    The oppressive American justice system is too often unintentionally overlooked by us, but, like imperialism, this issue belongs to libertarians and needs libertarians more than any other political movement.

    Over half of federal prisoners are nonviolent drug offenders. We have a moral obligation to end this.

    I'm working on organizing a project on this subject. E-mail me if you're interested.
    davefrank1@gmail.com

  • ||

    I'm not so sure we should compare ourselves to China... numbers right or wrong.

    How about comparisons to other open democratic nations...

    Not looking so good, eh?

  • Zander Erasmus||

    "..No, it's "better 100 innocent people go to prison than the cops and prosecutors admit they can't find the guilty party."..."

    i think you hit the nail on its head

    the whole 'innocent until proven guilty' is pretty much BS these days... i was watching a news article about this one woman put in prison for life for killing her husband..

    problem is... there was NO hard evidence... everything was circumstantial, and yet they still prosecuted her >> that is why I like living in Canada so much more

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