In the international race to incarcerate, the United States dominates, with few rivals and no rich countries within shouting distance. Incarceration rates across countries are best measured as shares of national populations. Last year, for every 100,000 people in the United States, 738 were in prison. Second-place Russia, whom the United States succeeded in 2000, currently boasts a rate of 603, but the only other OECD country with a rate above 200 is Poland at 229. The U.K. incarceration rate of 145 is the highest of any Western European country. Although African-Americans suffer the greatest relative burden of U.S. imprisonment, the incarceration rate for whites in the United States is still more than three times the OECD average.
To its credit, the United States hasn't always imprisoned such a large share of its population. Incarceration rates were steady, sometimes falling, and always below 200 throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. The prison population rate rose sharply from 1973 to 1980, and then skyrocketed, more than tripling over the past 25 years.
What caused such a tremendous spike in imprisonment? Increases in crime rates surely made some contribution, but the road to prison involves other components of the criminal justice system, like prosecutorial and judicial decisions, and the time served in jail. Isolating these factors during the period from 1980 to 1996, Carnegie Mellon professor Alfred Blumstein and Bureau of Justice statistician Allen Beck conclude that only 12 percent of state incarceration growth resulted from the increased number of offenses. The rest of the prison population growth was due to decisions to incarcerate arrested individuals and their subsequent sentence length -- namely, policy choices made by legal and political representatives.
Coinciding directly with this astounding expansion of the prison population is the U.S. "war on drugs." Nonviolent drug offenses accounted for less than 8 percent of prisoners in 1980, but by 1993 that share had risen to about 25 percent, where it remains today. By contrast, more than half of those imprisoned in 1980 were violent criminals, who now comprise a bit less than half of the prison population. As a proportion of illicit activity, drug use therefore either tripled in just slightly over a decade and then stabilized, or the focus and severity of U.S. penal and sentencing policy shifted dramatically.
International comparisons also reveal the stark and decisive contribution of criminal justice policies to incarceration rates. Cross-country crime surveys from the late 1980s through the present place the United States slightly above average, but well within the range of Western European criminal activity. The United States is now, of course, off the charts in terms of incarceration, imprisoning on a per capita basis six times the average of other OECD countries.
Incarceration rates in the United States and Finland were not dissimilar in the mid-1960s. Over the following 30 years, the United States saw a near fivefold increase in the rate of violent crime and a threefold increase in the rate of imprisonment. Violent crime also rose in Finland by a factor of three, but over roughly the same period, the promotion of sentencing alternatives to incarceration and deliberate reductions in the length of prison sentences helped to cut the Finnish incarceration rate by more than half.
Assessing these trends, criminologist Michael Tonry writes that whereas U.K. punishment policies were originally not out of the ordinary compared with Western Europe, since 1993 England and Wales "have consciously emulated American crime control policies," resulting in the near doubling of the prison population. In Germany, despite a doubling of the violent crime rate between the early 1960s and 1990s, "no radical decisions were made to increase or decrease the imprisonment rate," and so the German incarceration rate stagnated and even fell somewhat over this period. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that incarceration rates are driven primarily by policy choices, not by crime rates or inexorable laws of nature.
by Ben Zipperer a research assistant at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C.
Published at AlterNet