Drug Policy

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."