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America: King of the Prison States

Updated on July 18, 2011

America houses more prisoners than any other country.


America houses more prisoners than any other country. Why?

The United States currently has the highest incarceration rate of any nation worldwide. For example, greater than 60 percent of nations have incarceration rates below 150 per 100,000 people (Walmsley, 2003). The United States makes up just about five percent of the world’s population and yet it houses 25 percent of the world’s prison population (Walmsley, 2009). In 2008 there were more than 2.3 million people held in United States prisons and jails, a rate of approximately 754 inmates per 100,000 people (Sabol, West, & Cooper, 2009). So if we only count adults in the population that translates into a one in 100 American adults is locked up. Russia is the only other major industrialized nation that comes close with 627 prisoners for every 100,000 people. Other countries have much lower incarceration rates. For instance England’s rate is 151/100,000; Germany’s rate is 88/100, 000; and Japan’s rate is 63/100,000 people. The median rate of incarceration among all nations is about 125/100, 000 people which is about a sixth of the American incarceration rate (Sabol, West, & Cooper, 2009).

However, this was not always the case. Before the 1970s, the United States had an incarceration rate that had been in the range of 100 inmates per 100,000 people for decades. Thus, the current incarceration rate represents a significant increase in the use of imprisonment in the United States starting in the decade of the 1970s. Even though incarceration rate in the United States is the highest in the world there has been a decline in the rate over the last several years. For instance, from the years between 2000 to 2008 (even though the all-time high incarceration rate was in 2008) the growth of the prison population in the United States was less than a third of the rate during the 1990s (1.8 percent compared to 6.5% per year; Sabol, West, & Cooper, 2009). There are probably several reasons for the recent decrease the rate of incarcerations including a decline in both violent and property crime rates and the economic state of the nation. Also when states face a financial crisis they can cut costs by reducing the number of people incarcerated and opt on early release programs. Nonetheless, the high number of incarcerations in the United States remains a serious issue. There are several social, political, economic, and cultural factors particular to the United States that have been used to explain the high rates of incarceration. Some of these factors, such as relatively lower financial spending devoted to social welfare programs than other countries may play a factor in the higher rates of incarceration; however, it appears that the most explanatory feature of the incarceration rates is the considerably greater reliance on incarceration’s use as a sanction in the United States relative to other countries.

Proposed reasons why the US has so many prisoners.

For example, the crime rate in a country is a factor that is most commonly believed to be related to numbers of incarcerations, and this makes sense on the surface. Many suggest that the incarceration rate in the United States is high because it has higher crime rates relative to other countries. However, crime statistic comparisons between different countries are difficult to conduct because the definition of crimes that are worthy of incarceration can vary between countries. Overall the total crime rate of the United States is similar to that of other highly developed countries with the exception being homicide rates which are substantially higher. Violent crime rates in the United States are high relative to other nations but they do not appear to be exceptionally high. Robberies in countries like England and Australia are reported to be higher in some surveys than corresponding rates in the United States (Gideon, 2011). The United States has relatively less nonviolent crime than countries like Canada and England. It does not follow then, that homicide rates alone are responsible for the exceptionally high incarceration rates in the United States because homicide is a relatively rare crime and Finland also has a relatively high homicide rate compared to other countries, but also has a low incarceration rate compared to other nations (Guetzkow & Western, 2007).

Related to the above, victimization data is another method that can be used to assess whether the United States has more crime than other countries. The International Crime Victimization Survey (Van Dijk, van Kesteren, & Smit, 2008) indicates that overall crime is more common in England, Wales, and the Netherlands than it is in the United States. Moreover, victimization rates in the United States are very similar to those in Canada; however, the incarceration rate in the United States is five to six times greater than it is in Canada. Therefore based on official crime rates and victimization data it does not appear that the United States is greatly different from other nations with significantly smaller rates of incarceration. It does not appear that the overall crime rate in the United States can satisfactorily explain the high incarceration rate.

It was mentioned earlier that perhaps the United States does not spend or engages in less spending on social welfare programs and this leads to greater income inequality in the United States. Perhaps these factors might contribute to higher incarceration rates in the United States. According to data reported by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD, 2008) two nations that spend generously on social welfare programs and have fair levels of overall income equality, Germany and Finland, also have the low incarceration rates. It would likewise be reasonable to believe that higher levels of unemployment would contribute to higher incarceration rates; however the data indicate that Finland and Germany had significantly higher unemployment rates, whereas the United States had relatively low rates of unemployment among democracies. Moreover, looking at areas like the amount of money spent on public education (where the United States is higher than other nations) and the differences in spending on social programs it becomes clear that the United States does not differ so significantly from most other nations to justify the large discrepancy in incarceration rates.

Many have reported that race is an important factor in the American incarceration prison rate. For example, African Americans are much more likely to be imprisoned than other ethnic groups in the United States, but this does not represent a distinctive phenomenon of United States prison demographics. It is also known that minorities in Canada, Britain and Australia are disproportionately represented in prisons and the ratios are similar to or larger than those in the United States (Western, 2007).

Blumstein and Beck (1999) recognizing the substantial increase in the incarceration rate in the United States found that the vast majority of the incarceration rate increase in the United States was attributed to changes in sentencing and correctional policies (88%) rather than an increase in crime, economic conditions, or other reasons. While the incarceration rate in the United States experienced significant growth from 1987 to 2007 (a 114% increase in incarceration rates) other countries such as England (61%) and Australia (73%) also increased incarceration rates during this period at a slower pace. In contrast, some nations demonstrated stable levels of incarceration (e.g., Germany only a three percent increase), whereas others saw their incarceration rates decline (e.g., Finland’s rate decreased by 19% during the same period; International Center for Prison Studies, 2008). The difference in incarceration rates is attributable to policy differences between the United States and other countries over this period.

The real reason why the US has so many prisoners.

The United States has a significantly higher incarceration rate than other countries because of its reliance on incarceration as a sanction compared to other alternatives. According to the United Nations Survey on Crime Trends and the Operations of Criminal Justice Systems this reliance on incarceration is a the contributing factor to the discrepancy between the United States and other nations (Aromaa & Heiskanen, 2008). The data indicates that imprisonment is the most commonly used sanction in the United States over the years 1995-2004, whereas most other countries, particularly other Western democracies, primarily use fines as a form of punishment.

A general principle of the penal policies in many of these other nations is that imprisonment should be avoided as far as possible, used only as a last resort, and sentence lengths should be as short as possible. Since the 1970s greater than half of all sentences in countries like Finland and Germany consisted of fines as an opposed to imprisonment (Walmasley, 2003). In Scotland 60% of convicted defendants received a fine, while 13% received a custodial sentence (Scottish Executive, 2007). According to the Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics (2008) English courts do not appear to rely as heavily on fines as do other countries. For instance, in England in 2006 only 17% of those convicted of a crime received fines; however, the percentage of those convicted receiving a prison term was relatively low (24%). However, 78% of sentences imposed by United States federal courts in 2005 involved incarceration, whereas 3% of sentences involved only fines and in 2004 70% of convicted felons in state courts were sentenced to incarceration. Essentially, in the United States people are more likely to be sentenced to prison for federal and drug offenses than other countries and these sentences are lengthier in duration. A person sentenced in the United States for burglary will serve about 16 months in prison, whereas in Canada they will serve about 5 months and in England about 7 months. In England only 12% of prisoners, compared to 41% in the United States have been sentenced to 10 years or more. Six percent of prisoners in England convicted of drug offenses serve prison sentences of 10 years or greater compared to 27% of those in the United States (Graziadei & Lynch, 1994).

So people who commit nonviolent crimes in other parts of the world are less likely to receive prison time for their transgressions and certainly are less likely to receive long sentences. The United States is, for instance, the only advanced country that incarcerates people for minor property crimes like passing bad checks. As mentioned above the efforts in the 1980s to combat illegal drugs could play a major role in explaining long prison sentences in the United States as well. For instance in 1980 there were nearly 40,000 people incarcerated in America for drug crimes. In 2008 there were nearly 500,000. If incarceration rates were compiled based on annual admissions to prison per capita, several European countries would outpace the United States; however, American prison stays are much longer, so the total incarceration rate is higher (Aromaa & Heiskanen, 2008).

Thus, the reason why the United States has a higher incarceration rate than other countries does not lie in a significantly overall higher crime rate or a society that fosters inequality on disadvantaged individuals, but instead on judicial policies of handing out jail sentences for crimes not punished by incarceration in other countries and handing out longer terms of incarceration than other countries. On average, seven out of ten defendants convicted in United States courts between 1995 and 2000 received some form of incarceration as part of their sentence, whereas for other countries the corresponding rate was less than one in ten.

How other countries have handled this problem.

Other countries facing similar issues have managed to significantly reduce their rates of incarceration. Lappi-Seppala (2001) discussed the case of Finland, which in the 1950s boasted an incarceration rate of about 200 prisoners per 100,000 people. While this incarceration rate is significantly smaller than the current rate in the United States, in the 1950s it was nearly twice that of the United States and was three to four times larger than surrounding Nordic countries. There were three possible factors that explained Finland’s high incarceration rates: (1) a cultural climate in which the severity of a crime was not judged similarly relative to other Nordic countries, (2) a more rigid penal system with higher minimum penalties, and (3) severe sentences for relatively common crimes such as driving under the influence of alcohol. These factors are very similar to the current zeitgeist of the United States.

Lappi-Seppala (2001) believes that changes in all these three aspects of the Finnish court system and culture were responsible for decrease in incarceration rates; however, the most crucial factor that served as a vehicle for change was the shift in the ideological perspective of policy makers. There was an outspoken political criticism targeted at coercive treatment and the restriction of liberty which eventually assisted in redefining criminal justice policy. The traditional aims of the criminal justice policy were replaced by the goals of minimizing the costs, the adverse effects of crime, and crime control as well as the fair distribution of these costs among the offender, society, and the victim. This new attitude led to reforms in the criminal justice system. Some of the reforms Finland instituted included reduced penalties for traditional property crimes, the expanded use of noncustodial alternatives for offenders, and the development of new sentencing guidelines designed to reduce the number of incarcerations. Previously there were high minimum penalties and strict sentencing guidelines for many forms of theft that incarcerated a large number of offenders in Finnish prisons (Lappi-Seppala, 2001). The new attitude resulted in considerable legislative changes being made regarding the sentencing of those convicted of theft and of drunken driving offenses between 1970 and 1991. A legislative reform enacted in 1972 redefined serious forms of theft introducing a new guidelines for penalties that resulted in a substantial decrease in the percentage of convicted offenders of larceny and other forms of theft as well as a decrease in sentence lengths of those who were convicted of these offenses. Reforms to drunk driving offenses focused on using noncustodial alternatives instead of unconditional sentences of imprisonment resulting in a substantial decrease in those incarcerated for drunk driving (70% in 1971 to 12% in 1981).

Another important change in the Finnish sentencing practices was the introduction of community service for convicted offenders as an alternative to imprisonment. Community service as an alternative sentence for offenders of certain nonviolent crimes was used in lieu of short terms of imprisonment (Lappi-Seppala, 2004). First the court would determine a sentence for a convicted offender using the traditional sentencing criteria. In the case of an offender being sentenced to imprisonment the court was given the leeway to decide whether to commute the prison sentence to community service. In order for that to happen there typically three conditions that had to be met. The first criteria was that convicted offended would consent to perform community service in lieu of imprisonment. Second, the court would have to reach a decision that the offender was actually able to carry out the requirements of community service. Finally, a review of the offender’s history must indicate that there is nothing in the prior criminal history of the person that would disqualify the use of community service in lieu of incarceration. There were several “test” years before community service orders started being used nationwide in 1994. Community service orders have largely accomplished their intended goal of reducing incarceration rates in Finnish prisons and since 1994, approximately 30% of convicted offenders sentenced to a prison term received a community service order instead. Finnish incarceration rates dramatically declined despite relatively stable crime rates using these criteria (Lappi-Seppala, 2004).

The example of how Finland was able to lower its annual incarceration rate by instituting relatively simple policy changes is applicable to the United States. Both the current criminal justice United States and the system in Finland in the 1950s share certain basic features and the United States could use the Finnish example as a model of how to reduce its prison population. Implementing similar changes in the United States would require additional decreased penalties for minor drug offenses and nonviolent crimes. The implementation of substance-abuse rehabilitation along with lengthy community service options and probation terms for drug offenders and those convicted of minor theft and other nonviolent crimes would assist in decreasing annual incarceration rates in the long run. The United States could also decriminalize many petty offenses and instead treat them as administrative or civil infractions punishable by fines only, decriminalize petty drug offenses in a like manner, and discourage jail sentences of less than six months duration. In addition to reducing the burden of incarceration, community service options could fill a much-needed niche in society and be a part of the rehabilitative process for these offenders by giving the purpose, structure, opening up contacts for them, and in some cases teaching them useful skills. The restructuring of sentencing guidelines to narrow ranges of incarceration could also make for a more equitable distribution of justice to convicted offenders.


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      hollywoodbear 6 years ago

      That was just an awesome paper that you wrote. Too bad that the rest of the United States doesn't see things your way. See the problem is that there is no money to be made off seeing things your way. You are 100% correct. There are so many better alternatives. But in this capitalistic society, greedy politicians and Correctional Officers Unions are king.