This July 4th I was thinking again on the paradox of the Land of the Free having the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Approximately 743 out of every 100,000 Americans (about 0.7%) are currently imprisoned.
In the list of global incarceration rates, the United States is nowhere near any country we traditionally think of as an ally. Israel is the closest at rank 28, but with less than half the incarceration rate. Israel is also in an incredibly difficult security situation, so they should not serve as a peer or role model in this respect. A better match would be the UK, which comes in at rank 94 with 152 per 100,000: nearly five times smaller than the US.
I must point out that the US is apparently being successful in exporting freedom and democracy to the world. Many of the nations we have blessed with freedom have notably low rates of incarceration:
- #140 Iraq: 101 (per 100,000)
- #157 Germany 85
- #177 Kosovo c.66
- #179 Afghanistan 62
- #186 Japan 58
I know it is pedantic to equate incarceration rates with freedom. However, the state depriving people of liberty is about the most literal and practical offense to freedom which I can think of. Earlier I asked what the possible causes for this high incarceration rate in the US may be. I can suggest some here. This list is certainly not exhaustive, and all of the items probably contribute to the problem.
- The US has more laws than other countries.
- US laws are more likely to carry imprisonment as a punitive measure.
- US laws require longer prison sentences.
- US judges and/or juries tend to give longer sentences.
- The US has a higher rate of conviction.
- The US prosecutes a higher proportion of crimes committed.
- Americans actually commit more crime.
None of those sound very good unless you are of the opinion that higher prosecution and conviction rates are driven by a higher love for justice in the US than in other nations. Items 1-6 are in tension with our beloved "free country" self-description. #7 is just depressing.
Our rate of imprisonment is just embarrassing. I do not think it is necessary: we are not a nation of thugs. We like being "tough on crime" for some reason, and the impetus behind tougher prison sentences seems to come from the populace. Criminals are easily marginalized by the majority because as high as the population of current and former inmates is, it is still a very small portion (not to mention the fact that some convicted criminals are disenfranchised).
Nonetheless it is time to walk this trend backwards. We need to petition lawmakers to reduce prison sentences, repeal "mandatory minimums," and reduce the number of crimes for which incarceration is meted out as a punishment. We also need to turn a skeptical eye toward the criminal justice system which achieves such a high incarceration rate. Prison is expensive for the taxpayers and destructive to the inmates. Moreover it is contrary to our national pride in our freedom and our conscience. Therefore we need to reduce the prison population in order to let freedom not only endure but grow.