Pubdate: Wed, 23 Apr 2008
Source: New York Times (NY)
Page: 1, Section A, Front Page
Copyright: 2008 The New York Times Company
Author: Adam Liptak
Bookmark: (Incarceration)


The United States has less than 5 percent of the world's population. 
But it has almost a quarter of the world's prisoners.

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.

Criminologists and legal scholars in other industrialized nations say 
they are mystified and appalled by the number and length of American 
prison sentences.

The United States has, for instance, 2.3 million criminals behind 
bars, more than any other nation, according to data maintained by the 
International Center for Prison Studies at King's College London.

China, which is four times more populous than the United States, is a 
distant second, with 1.6 million people in prison. (That number 
excludes hundreds of thousands of people held in administrative 
detention, most of them in China's extrajudicial system of 
re-education through labor, which often singles out political 
activists who have not committed crimes.)

San Marino, with a population of about 30,000, is at the end of the 
long list of 218 countries compiled by the center. It has a single prisoner.

The United States comes in first, too, on a more meaningful list from 
the prison studies center, the one ranked in order of the 
incarceration rates. It has 751 people in prison or jail for every 
100,000 in population. (If you count only adults, one in 100 
Americans is locked up.)

The only other major industrialized nation that even comes close is 
Russia, with 627 prisoners for every 100,000 people. The others have 
much lower rates. England's rate is 151; Germany's is 88; and Japan's is 63.

The median among all nations is about 125, roughly a sixth of the 
American rate.

There is little question that the high incarceration rate here has 
helped drive down crime, though there is debate about how much.

Criminologists and legal experts here and abroad point to a tangle of 
factors to explain America's extraordinary incarceration rate: higher 
levels of violent crime, harsher sentencing laws, a legacy of racial 
turmoil, a special fervor in combating illegal drugs, the American 
temperament, and the lack of a social safety net. Even democracy 
plays a role, as judges -- many of whom are elected, another American 
anomaly -- yield to populist demands for tough justice.

Whatever the reason, the gap between American justice and that of the 
rest of the world is enormous and growing.

It used to be that Europeans came to the United States to study its 
prison systems. They came away impressed.

"In no country is criminal justice administered with more mildness 
than in the United States," Alexis de Tocqueville, who toured 
American penitentiaries in 1831, wrote in "Democracy in America."

No more.

"Far from serving as a model for the world, contemporary America is 
viewed with horror," James Q. Whitman, a specialist in comparative 
law at Yale, wrote last year in Social Research. "Certainly there are 
no European governments sending delegations to learn from us about 
how to manage prisons."

Prison sentences here have become "vastly harsher than in any other 
country to which the United States would ordinarily be compared," 
Michael H. Tonry, a leading authority on crime policy, wrote in "The 
Handbook of Crime and Punishment."

Indeed, said Vivien Stern, a research fellow at the prison studies 
center in London, the American incarceration rate has made the United 
States "a rogue state, a country that has made a decision not to 
follow what is a normal Western approach."

The spike in American incarceration rates is quite recent. From 1925 
to 1975, the rate remained stable, around 110 people in prison per 
100,000 people. It shot up with the movement to get tough on crime in 
the late 1970s. (These numbers exclude people held in jails, as 
comprehensive information on prisoners held in state and local jails 
was not collected until relatively recently.)

The nation's relatively high violent crime rate, partly driven by the 
much easier availability of guns here, helps explain the number of 
people in American prisons.

"The assault rate in New York and London is not that much different," 
said Marc Mauer, the executive director of the Sentencing Project, a 
research and advocacy group. "But if you look at the murder rate, 
particularly with firearms, it's much higher."

Despite the recent decline in the murder rate in the United States, 
it is still about four times that of many nations in Western Europe.

But that is only a partial explanation. The United States, in fact, 
has relatively low rates of nonviolent crime. It has lower burglary 
and robbery rates than Australia, Canada and England.

People who commit nonviolent crimes in the rest of the world are less 
likely to receive prison time and certainly less likely to receive 
long sentences. The United States is, for instance, the only advanced 
country that incarcerates people for minor property crimes like 
passing bad checks, Mr. Whitman wrote.

Efforts to combat illegal drugs play a major role in explaining long 
prison sentences in the United States as well. In 1980, there were 
about 40,000 people in American jails and prisons for drug crimes. 
These days, there are almost 500,000.

Those figures have drawn contempt from European critics. "The U.S. 
pursues the war on drugs with an ignorant fanaticism," said Ms. Stern 
of King's College.

Many American prosecutors, on the other hand, say that locking up 
people involved in the drug trade is imperative, as it helps thwart 
demand for illegal drugs and drives down other kinds of crime. 
Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey, for instance, has fought hard to 
prevent the early release of people in federal prison on crack 
cocaine offenses, saying that many of them "are among the most 
serious and violent offenders."

Still, it is the length of sentences that truly distinguishes 
American prison policy. Indeed, the mere number of sentences imposed 
here would not place the United States at the top of the 
incarceration lists. If lists were compiled based on annual 
admissions to prison per capita, several European countries would 
outpace the United States. But American prison stays are much longer, 
so the total incarceration rate is higher.

Burglars in the United States serve an average of 16 months in 
prison, according to Mr. Mauer, compared with 5 months in Canada and 
7 months in England.

Many specialists dismissed race as an important distinguishing factor 
in the American prison rate. It is true that blacks are much more 
likely to be imprisoned than other groups in the United States, but 
that is not a particularly distinctive phenomenon. Minorities in 
Canada, Britain and Australia are also disproportionately represented 
in those nation's prisons, and the ratios are similar to or larger 
than those in the United States.

Some scholars have found that English-speaking nations have higher 
prison rates.

"Although it is not at all clear what it is about Anglo-Saxon culture 
that makes predominantly English-speaking countries especially 
punitive, they are," Mr. Tonry wrote last year in "Crime, Punishment 
and Politics in Comparative Perspective."

"It could be related to economies that are more capitalistic and 
political cultures that are less social democratic than those of most 
European countries," Mr. Tonry wrote. "Or it could have something to 
do with the Protestant religions with strong Calvinist overtones that 
were long influential."

The American character -- self-reliant, independent, judgmental -- 
also plays a role.

"America is a comparatively tough place, which puts a strong emphasis 
on individual responsibility," Mr. Whitman of Yale wrote. "That 
attitude has shown up in the American criminal justice of the last 30 years."

French-speaking countries, by contrast, have "comparatively mild 
penal policies," Mr. Tonry wrote.

Of course, sentencing policies within the United States are not 
monolithic, and national comparisons can be misleading.

"Minnesota looks more like Sweden than like Texas," said Mr. Mauer of 
the Sentencing Project. (Sweden imprisons about 80 people per 100,000 
of population; Minnesota, about 300; and Texas, almost 1,000. Maine 
has the lowest incarceration rate in the United States, at 273; and 
Louisiana the highest, at 1,138.)

Whatever the reasons, there is little dispute that America's 
exceptional incarceration rate has had an impact on crime.

"As one might expect, a good case can be made that fewer Americans 
are now being victimized" thanks to the tougher crime policies, Paul 
G. Cassell, an authority on sentencing and a former federal judge, 
wrote in The Stanford Law Review.

 From 1981 to 1996, according to Justice Department statistics, the 
risk of punishment rose in the United States and fell in England. The 
crime rates predictably moved in the opposite directions, falling in 
the United States and rising in England.

"These figures," Mr. Cassell wrote, "should give one pause before too 
quickly concluding that European sentences are appropriate."

Other commentators were more definitive. "The simple truth is that 
imprisonment works," wrote Kent Scheidegger and Michael Rushford of 
the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in The Stanford Law and Policy 
Review. "Locking up criminals for longer periods reduces the level of 
crime. The benefits of doing so far offset the costs."

There is a counterexample, however, to the north. "Rises and falls in 
Canada's crime rate have closely paralleled America's for 40 years," 
Mr. Tonry wrote last year. "But its imprisonment rate has remained stable."

Several specialists here and abroad pointed to a surprising 
explanation for the high incarceration rate in the United States: democracy.

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.

Mr. Whitman, who has studied Tocqueville's work on American 
penitentiaries, was asked what accounted for America's booming prison 

"Unfortunately, a lot of the answer is democracy -- just what 
Tocqueville was talking about," he said. "We have a highly 
politicized criminal justice system."
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