April 24, 2008
U.S. Prison Population
Cooter and I have remarked, in the fifth edition of our text, on the fact that the U.S. prison population increased four-fold from 1980 to 2002 -- from 500,000 to 2 million. This is an extraordinarily interesting story in today's New York Times about this matter. See here.
The article begins with the observation that although the U.S. has only 5 percent of the world's population, it has 25 percent of the world's incarcerated population. By comparison, China, the most populous nation, has only 1.6 million prisoners. At the other end of the spectrum, San Marino, with a population of 30,000, has 1 prisoner.
The U.S. prison population works out to be 751 prisoners per 100,000 population. Counting only adults, 1 in 100 U.S. citizens is in prison. Among the developed countries, only Russia has remotely similar figures, incarcerating 627 for every 100,000 population. England is 151; Germany, 88; and Japan, 63. The median figure for all nations is 125.
Interestingly, the U.S. reliance on incarceration is relatively recent. From 1925 to 1975 the U.S. incarcerated 110 people per 100,000 population.
Why are the imprisonment figures so high in the U.S.? The article speculates that it has to do with our higher violent crime rates. But that sounds unlikely. Yes, we do have more violent crime than most other developed countries, but that form of crime has been declining for almost 20 years. The article also notes that we tend to incarcerate people for longer periods for the same crime than do other countries. But that too sounds as if it is not likely to be the central explanation. We simply seem to be quicker to put people in prison than do other countries. And I'm not entirely sure what factors would help to explain that predisposition.
April 24, 2008 | Permalink
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