Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Does Democracy Account For America's Astounding Imprisonment Rates?

There were several surprising headlines on the the front page of the New York Times this morning. If you're into opera, or music in general I suppose, the lead tenor at the Met hit nine high C's in a single aria and then did it all again. Oh and America has about one twentieth of the world's population but nearly one quarter of its prisoners.

Now I knew that the US locked criminals up at an astonishingly high rate, and that the US had the highest incarceration rate on the planet (turns out we lock up 1 out of every 100 adults) but I had no idea that the US had, simply, the most prisoners of any country, and by a lot mind you.

According to the article the US today has nearly 2.3 million people behind bars, second place you may have guessed goes to China. But did you also guess that they're almost a million inmates behind? If you took all of the prisoners in Russia and added them to all of the prisoners in China you'd pass the US's count, but just barely.

The article is shocking, and well worth a look (it also has another great interactive graphic from the Times). It offers a few insights into how the US came to be in this situation.

Indeed, the United States leads the world in producing prisoners, a reflection of a relatively recent and now entirely distinctive American approach to crime and punishment. Americans are locked up for crimes — from writing bad checks to using drugs — that would rarely produce prison sentences in other countries. And in particular they are kept incarcerated far longer than prisoners in other nations.
Locking people up for bouncing a check or being addicted to drugs isn't something that any other civilized countries do (not that many uncivilized ones do either for that matter). But our dedication to democracy may also be to blame.
Most state court judges and prosecutors in the United States are elected and are therefore sensitive to a public that is, according to opinion polls, generally in favor of tough crime policies. In the rest of the world, criminal justice professionals tend to be civil servants who are insulated from popular demands for tough sentencing.
You better be tough on crime if you want to get elected around here. Or better yet, you better appear tough on crime - watch the third season of the Wire for a great contemporary example.

So be good out there boys and girls, don't bounce any checks now.

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