Which country has the highest incarceration rate in the world? The US. And that’s not merely the highest incarceration rate among rich countries or western countries or developed countries. The US has more prisoners as a function of its population than any country on the planet. You can rattle off the worst regimes for human rights: Burma, Cuba, China, Yemen, Saudi Arabia. But on locking ’em up, the US smokes ’em all. And it isnt even close. The US jails 40% more people than Russia or Cuba – more than doubles Iran – triples UAE, Singapore and Turkmenistan – quadruples Albania – quintuples Iraq. We could go on – we probably should go on – but you get the idea.
And that’s just the ugly part of the story – the weird (and still ugly) part is that the US doesnt even have an especially high crime rate. Lots of murders, yes indeed – but violence and property crime is no more common in the US than in Western European countries with far lower incarceration rates. Higher US incarceration rates can NOT be explained away as a response to higher crime in the US – because crime rates in the US arent that high.
Neither can higher US incarceration rates be explained by a historical increase in crime. Crime in the US peaked in 1991, and has fallen steadily for more than 20 years. Since 1991, violent crime rates have fallen by half, and property crime rates have fallen by 30-40%. Meanwhile incarceration rates have risen by 50%! Put otherwise, the US property crime rate today is about the same as it was in 1968. The US violent crime rate today is about the same as it was in 1971. The murder rate is about the same as it was in 1963. And yet the incarceration rate in the US is FIVE TIMES HIGHER than it was in the 60s and early 70s.
Just in case we’ve somehow failed to drive home this point: the US locks up an outrageous number of people. Whether compared to other countries, taken in historical context, or as a function of crime, there are way, way WAY too many Americans in prisons – we’re talking easily triple what there should be, by any international or historical comparison.
An closer look reveals two key factors behind astronomical US incarceration rates: drug laws, and the length of sentences. The so-called war on drugs has succeeded in putting a large number of non-violent offenders in US prisons. Stricter sentencing means that even though Americans do NOT get sent to prison much more often than residents of other countries, Americans tend to stay in prison far longer per sentence.
Clearly, no one should ever go to prison merely for choosing to ingest a substance – and in the twilight between now and the day that that becomes law, America should work to systematically reduce the number of people who go to prison for nonviolent drug-related crimes; and should work to shorten the sentences of those already incarcerated. The latter is precisely the plan recently backed by AG Eric Holder. It’s only a modest improvement on what remains a draconian set of laws – but it’s a change for the better, and, one hopes, a step toward the dismantling of the US prison-industrial complex.