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US Has 25 Percent of World's Prisoners — Is It Safer?

US Has 25 Percent of World's Prisoners — Is It Safer?

With less than 5 percent of the world's population, the US has 25 percent of the world's prisoners. The US incarceration rate, which remained stable for much of US history, increased by seven fold with the late 1970s movement to get tough on crime.

Today's New York Times highlights explanations offered by criminologists:

[H]igher 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.

As a result of this combination, 2.3 million criminals are behind American bars. That means about one in 100 Americans are locked up. China, which has four times as many people, has 1.6 million criminal prisoners. San Marino, which has a population of 30,000, has one prisoner.

With tougher sentences, a drop in crime has followed. But causation is not clear. Ups and down in Canada's crime rate has mirrored the US's; however, there has not been a surge in Canada's imprisonment rate.

What is your reaction to this American anomaly, and the decision to not follow the rest of the West? Is tough sentencing the best way to make America safer?


Join The Conversation
lilkimbo lilkimbo 9 years
Thanks, lula...I actually agree with Jillness on something and I want the world to know! I haven't been posting much lately, but those of you who remember when I used to post a lot know that Jillness and I rarely agree!
lula29 lula29 9 years
Sometimes my comments get flagged. Just e-mail citzensugar and they'll post it. I think they have an automatic filter or something, but they're usually pretty cool about posting things once you let them know directly.
jennifer76 jennifer76 9 years
My comment got flagged last night, and still hasn't shown up! :( I thought it was pretty innocuous, but mebbe not...
jennythereader jennythereader 9 years
I wanted to check all three of the "no" answers.
lilkimbo lilkimbo 9 years
My comment got flagged, too, Jude! Hopefully it will show up soon!
lilkimbo lilkimbo 9 years
Jill, I agree with you on marijuana laws. I know (or at least I'm pretty sure) the tobacco lobby has something to do with marijuana still being illegal, as well. I think it should be legalized and highly taxed! As far as the privatization of prisons, it does bother me, but I think it's important to note that only a small percentage of prisoners (about 4%) are housed in private prisons in the U.S. These people are "overflow" from government run prisons. So, less strict sentencing laws on things like marijuana could help alleviate the problem of having people in private prisons, as well. All of this being said, I am still staunchly for harsh sentencing for violent offenders and some non-violent repeat offenders. (For example, I think someone who repeatedly breaks in to people's homes and vandalizes them should be harshly punished, even though the offense is non-violent.)
megnmac megnmac 9 years
This struck me from the article, it is something we as a country are still debating - 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.”
nyaradzom2001 nyaradzom2001 9 years
i'm sure that 300 000 could be replaced in a couple of hours by good ol' citizens so whatevs, although i find it stupid with all the whining and b!tching america does about immigration they choose to keep these people.
Kimpossible Kimpossible 9 years
If over 300,000 of them are eligible for deportation then that sounds like a really great way to help with the overcrowding issue in our prisons...send them back.
lula29 lula29 9 years
Frontline actually did an excellent story on the Meth epidemic. They also have a really good website on it. The story was really eye opening because it implicated makers of cold and cough medicine and their refusal to inact stricter controls on epephedrine and psuedoephedrine because they were afraid it'd affect their sales. Interesting for anyone who want to check it out.
jennifer76 jennifer76 9 years
I shake my head and worry, but for vastly different reason. Isn't it nice to find common ground? :P I don't have a general objection to privatization. Generally, I find the government excels at screwing up much more than private business. With privatization, at least there is the option that a company can lose its prison contract whereas when the government runs a prison into the ground, what can happen?
Hannah426 Hannah426 9 years
Everytime a person gets put in prison for 10 years for something trivial, I can practically feel my parents' taxes increasing. It costs so much money to maintain a prisoner for a year, so why keep making me pay for it when the punishment is not deserving of the crime.
Jillness Jillness 9 years
I shake my head and worry, but for vastly different reason.
megnmac megnmac 9 years
Purposes sought to be achieved in sentencing in Az are: retribution, deterrence, restraint and rehabilitation. I think we are MUCH safer with the scary murderers and sex offenders in prison. I know sentencing is sometimes a year later, but in violent or sexual cases where there is a strong case those offenders are held during the case. A coworker of mine just sentenced an 18 year old to 20 years in prison for murder - and the psych eval said he was likely to kill again when released. I have cases right now where the defendant was sent to prison for sex offenses, released, and is continuing with a new generation of victims. When these people are not free, we are safer. Restraint matters with them. With the rest of the people, what else can we do when the drug or nonviolent offenders keep offending? Someone steals a car, is put on probation, keeps stealing cars - that person is going to prison. Someone blows probation off, won't go, tries to disappear - that person is going to prison. Not because they're scary, but because they aren't taking the other opportunity the state is giving them. We aren't safe when someone keeps breaking into houses or hitting their wife or driving drunk for the 'n'th time or stealing cars, because these situations are highly risky and can blow up and harm innocent bystanders or law enforcement. Does anyone have alternative ideas? There are lots of things states try - including electronic monitoring or mandatory work service - but in the end, people convicted of serious crimes will either comply with probation and the amped up requirements or they will end up in prison. ps - I am all for the social network helping families and kids before they end up in prison... education, aid, the foster system, available counseling to address the huge mental health problems we have are all needed... and all cost money that voters would rather put into those private prisons...
Auntie-Coosa Auntie-Coosa 9 years
In China, life isn't worth much. They don't keep all their criminals in prison, they shoot quite a few of them on the way to lock up. The problem is that we don't kill our death penalty criminals fast enough nor make the death public so that people would get an idea of how much a wimp most criminals really are. We have allowed our nation to slide down the slippery slope of liberalism. After all, "the criminal is a victim, too" they whine. Well, if he's caught and DNA proves he did it, then . . . shoot him. He won't do it again and someone who was thinking of doing the same thing will think twice about it. I have a right to life from birth to natural death. If someone takes that right away from me by killing me, then that person forfeits his right to life. Period. And the death penalty should be swift and sure, no sitting in jail for ten or twenty years reading law books and watching television. I don't have a television, why should a criminal have more luxuries than I? Criminals belong in stocks at least twelve hours a day. And while we're at it, every criminal in jail should NOT be fed three meals a day at public expense. He better have family or friends to bring him his meals, Just Like They Do In Central American Countries. Why should the USofA pander to criminals? They've destroyed someone's life, so why are they still around? As for druggies, they should be placed together and given whatever they need to create their drug of choice and left alone until they finish the job of killing themselves. They want to die, let them die. If they want to rehabilitate, they'll have to prove it. BUT that's not the real problem. The people have lost the faith, hope and love they had back in the day. There are no loving families raising loving kids. And the result is what we have today. A bank robber jumps over a barrier and shoots a woman eight months pregnant with twins in the abdomen (missed the babies). For WHAT? Bank robbers routinely are not violent. So who was this numb skull? What was his problem? Why didn't he follow the "gentleman's rules of criminal conduct?" Life to him must have been worthless. Where was his mother when he needed nurturing? But that's no excuse. At some point in his life, he was loved. So sad that he decided the love wasn't enough. Because when all is gone, all we have left is love. I'm shaking my head and worrying about the world my grandchildren will inherit.
Jude-C Jude-C 9 years
I was just trying to say that I agree with you, Jillness. Privatization of any part of the criminal justice system seems quite dangerous.
Jude-C Jude-C 9 years comment got flagged? I wasn't cursing or posting links or anything... :ponder:
Jude-C Jude-C 9 years
Agreed, Jillness. Privatization is not always the solution.
Jillness Jillness 9 years
Is anyone else disturbed by prisons being corporately owned? I think it is a threat to justice when people profit from others being imprisoned.
hausfrau hausfrau 9 years
Nee - I see what you mean now. I would disagree to those who say that drug use doesn't affect others... I think all you need to do is talk to someone who has had a family member killed by someone in a DUI or DWI to disagree with that... Alcohol is prolly the worst drug of all (in terms of availability and impairment) and look how well the average person handles that!
jennifer76 jennifer76 9 years
So 15% of our prison population aren't even Americans? I wonder how that compares to countries like China and San Marino (lol). Criminal justice is not a subject I know much about. But, comparing Cool Hand Luke with Oz makes me wonder what the hell happened in between the two that changed our prison system so drastically. And did that actually work? I agree with a lot of the comments on the drug war. I'd be really interested in reading a breakdown of crimes committed by prisoners. What percentage of our prison population are violent offenders? What percentage are drug users vs. drug dealers? The only statistics I'm familiar with are recidivism rates which don't seem to indicate that our prison system has a lot of efficacy.
Jude-C Jude-C 9 years
The bloody past weekend in Chicago would tend to indicate that, at least in urban areas, we are not particularly safe, despite apparently having soooo many dangerous criminals locked up.
katybug518 katybug518 9 years
Dave, It's considered an illegal drug in this country. In most "western" countries, pot is not considered an illegal drug. In Europe you don't have to worry about the Polizei or the Policia pulling you over for a broken taillight, then wanting to search your entire car, and then arresting you because they found a roach in between your seats. It's not one of the main focus of law enforcement in Europe.
Jillz1128 Jillz1128 9 years
Ha.....I also feel bad for San Marino's one prisoner....
Jillness Jillness 9 years
Pot has far more in common with caffiene and tylenol than it does with heroin, crack, or meth. It became illegal because after prohibition ended, the alcohol companies wanted this new popular alternative to be knocked out. The drug czar actually wrote that he didn't know how he was going to be able to justify making "this harmless plant illegal". So they resorted to racism and misinformation to get it done. It is all very well documented. The science doesn't support the idea that pot should be treated like these other drugs. They are drastically different.
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