The Global Carceral State

The U.S. isn't the only country to have seen a recent prison boom.


The moon is a harsh mistress.
Tom Magliery

In this month's edition of Cato Unbound, Daniel D'Amico of Brown University takes an international look at mass incarceration. "I worry," he writes,

that prison discourse is too focused on the United States, when in fact incarceration transcends the American experience. Most countries have experienced growth. Ecuador, Indonesia, Cambodia, Israel, Serbia, and Georgia don't share much economic, partisan, or cultural American-ness, yet all doubled their prison populations in a decade, while Britain took three.

In other words: The U.S. may lock up a bigger proportion of its population than other nations do, but that doesn't mean they haven't seen similarly substantial rates of growth. As D'Amico notes, this doesn't disprove the theories that blame specifically American factors for the prison boom of the last few decades, but it certainly complicates them. He goes on to suggest a number of institutional factors that may affect which countries incarcerate at higher rates, including the intriguing possibility that some differences are linked to the British common law tradition. "While the common law is typically more decentralized," he writes, he and a colleague "suspect criminal justice systems were historically founded and subsequently organized more hierarchically relative to other common law social sectors. Furthermore this concentration of national power was exaggerated in the twentieth century."

Cato has published two responses essays so far. One, from former Reasoner Mike Riggs, asks how mass incarceration might be rolled back. The other, from Pew's Adam Gelb, shifts from the macro level to the micro: While D'Amico compares countries, Gelb looks at differences between the U.S. states. Like D'Amico, he highlights some unexpected factors in prison growth—for instance:

For many policymakers involved in the reform efforts, one of the surprising drivers of the growth in the prison population was the high rates of incarceration for supervision violators. Specifically, there was a fundamental misalignment of authority and responsibility between state and local governments. In many states, the state government runs and pays for prisons, while local government runs and pays for probation. So if a probationer is causing trouble, local officials can relieve themselves of the cost of supervision—and any potential political fallout—by revoking community supervision and sending the offender to state prison.

Another response essay—this one by the British criminologust Susanne Karstedt—will go up soon. To watch the discussion unfold, go here.

NEXT: Obama Administration Still Figuring Out China Policy with Less Than 16 Months Left in Office

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  1. Lock ’em up if ya got ’em!

  2. It’s the same with any “global statistic” when it comes to pointing out how the US is the ABSOLUTE WORST. Cherry pick the stats that the US openly displays (incarceration rates, infant mortality rates, etc.) and then compare them with stats from say Cuba or China, which are laughable at best in terms of being falsifiable.

    You think China openly and honestly displays their incarceration rates? You think Cuba has the same standards for infant mortality stats as the US?

    1. then compare them with stats from say Cuba or China, which are laughable at best in terms of being falsifiable.

      Testable, equatable, or falsifiable. I’d rather be in a U.S. prison than in most any part of Venezuela.

      1. weve reached a pretty depressing state when the US has becoming that shining detention facility on the hill.

        the US locks up too many people. the stats are not used to claim China is more free than the US among any reputable sources. the stats are used to reform US incarceration policies that desperately need to change.

        turning the prison reform debate into some kind of schoolyard contest with totalitarian regimes is pointless.

        1. turning the prison reform debate into some kind of schoolyard contest with totalitarian regimes is pointless.

          Right. Now explain to us how, as libertarians, we don’t exactly care how other countries run their prison systems, totalitarian or not, and that using the force of law to imprison people against their will (whether in an actual prison or freely within their home/community) is pretty universally wrong and you’ll be on the same page as the rest of us.

    2. I read some interesting commentary a few years back on infant mortality rates; haven’t been able to find it since. Said that the reason the US looks so bad is because it tries to save preemies younger than other countries. Where other countries would just give up or not try very hard at x weeks, the US is trying and succeeding at x-2 or x-4 (just made up figures on my part). If you normalize infant mortality for weeks premature, the US does better.

      So easy to screw up stats. Just like the Brits not counting a death as homicide until they have a conviction, so the unsolved murders aren’t legally homicide in the stats. No idea what the multiplier is — 2x, 3x, 4x?

      1. Here’s some of what you are referring to-

        Infant Mortality: A Deceptive Statistic

        Underreporting and unreliability of infant-mortality data from other countries undermine any comparisons with the United States. In a 2008 study, Joy Lawn estimated that a full three-fourths of the world’s neonatal deaths are counted only through highly unreliable five-yearly retrospective household surveys, instead of being reported at the time by hospitals and health-care professionals, as in the United States. Moreover, the most premature babies ? those with the highest likelihood of dying ? are the least likely to be recorded in infant and neonatal mortality statistics in other countries. Compounding that difficulty, in other countries the underreporting is greatest for deaths that occur very soon after birth. Since the earliest deaths make up 75 percent of all neonatal deaths, underreporting by other countries ? often misclassifying what were really live births as fetal demise (stillbirths) ? would falsely exclude most neonatal deaths. Any assumption that the practice of underreporting is confined to less-developed nations is incorrect. In fact, a number of published peer-reviewed studies show that underreporting of early neonatal deaths has varied between 10 percent and 30 percent in highly developed Western European and Asian countries.

        1. Thanks! Not exactly what I remember, but close enough. It does remind me that one problem with infant mortality was similar to the British homicide stats — a lot of people don’t count a live birth if the infant dies in the first few days or below a certain size. Everyone did something similar hundreds of years ago when half the kids died before 5.

      2. I don’t have a source in front of me, but I’ve read that like homicide, infant mortality is extremely concentrated in certain areas and ethnic groups. So Europeans see our infant mortality rates and think that everyone’s risk is 6.17/1000 when actually for most Americans it’s more like 3 and for a smaller group it’s 11 (numbers made up, but you get the point). Not that this is something to be proud of, but it gives a much more nuanced understanding of the situation.

        Also often overlooked is that even our relatively high infant mortality rate would make us something like #1 in the world back in 1985 – you know, back when the Scandinavian countries were a howling Somalia-esque wasteland. Infant mortality has dropped dramatically in just about every country, including the richest First World ones; if we’re behind Norway and Finland, it’s partly because they’re way ahead of where they were only a couple decades ago too.

  3. Furthermore this concentration of national power was exaggerated in the twentieth century.”

    Statutory uniform criminal codes, federal criminal code, and the MPC all come to mind.

  4. The global Carcereal state is alarming!

    I mean, people eating lucky charms while driving. One look at that fucker on the box and it’s like……where’s my pot of gold?……..then BAM!!! Accident.

    And what about eating that Captain Crunch while driving!!!??? That is a freakin’ pandemic!!! Folks cut the roof of their mouths and start bleeding profusely, sometimes filling the stomach with so much blood that they projectile vomit all over the windshield……OH NO!! I CAN’T SEE!!! TURN THE WIPERS ON!!!…note to self…IT’S INSIDE YOU IDIOT!!!…….KABLAM!!!! Carnage all over the effin road.

    1. +1 jagged metal Krusty-O

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