« Changes at AA | Main | The Quote of the Day... »

America's Flawed Prison Policies

The Economist's cover story this week is on America's massive prison population.

America's incarceration rate was roughly constant from 1925 to 1973, with an average of 110 people behind bars for every 100,000 residents. By 2000, however, the rate of incarceration in state and federal prisons had more than quadrupled, to 478. America has overtaken Russia as the world's most aggressive jailer. When local jails are included in the American tally, the United States locks up nearly 700 people per 100,000, compared with 102 for Canada, 132 for England and Wales, 85 for France and a paltry 48 in Japan. Roughly 2m Americans are currently behind bars, with some 4.5m on parole or on probation (the probationers are on suspended sentences). Another 3m Americans are ex-convicts who have served their sentences and are no longer under the control of the justice system.
This chart from the article illustrates the situation quite dramatically:
Yet, as the issue's editorial points out:
[W]hen it comes to drugs and violent crime, the two plagues hard sentencing was supposed to cure, it has failed dramatically. Drug-taking is as widespread as ever, and America's murder rate is still nearly four times higher than the European Union's.
Perhaps it's unfair to compare the US murder rate to that of the European Union. What if we compare the US to Canada? According to Statistics Canada, in 2000, the murder rate in Canada was 1.8 per 100,000 population, while in the US it was 5.5 per 100,000. That's a differemce of over three times.

Even in Vancouver -- home to what is reputedly the roughest neighborhood in Canada -- I've never felt scared for my life. I've never worried about what would happen if my car broke down. Yet I've felt scared plenty of times in the US -- in New York, Los Angeles, and Atlanta. What have our prison policies brought us? Have they truly made us safer? We lock up seven times as many people per person as the Canadians and yet we continue to live in a far more dangerous place. Isn't one definition of insanity the belief that continuing to engage in the same behavior will bring different results?

Post a comment