We’re Number One

23:47 Sun 02 Mar 2008
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More than one percent of the adult population in prison. More per capita than any other nation on the planet, and more by raw numbers as well. This is the leader of the free world*?

The article contains some disgusting attempts at justification, mainly claims that if the prison population were lower the crime rate would be higher, but in many senses that’s just pointing to the same problem: that the country has very deep problems that other countries seem able to avoid. The difference between the US and Western European countries in terms of incarceration rate is immense, at around seven to eight times as high. Those countries do not have crazy out-of-control crime because they’re imprisoning only one-eighth as many people.

I wrote about this last August in America’s Prison Addiction, and at the time I was focused on the fact that the vast prison population essentially meant that the state was punishing, in ways more severe than would be generally acknowledged (or that would be trivialized, if acknowledged), huge numbers of people.

(This reminds me that I need to go back and respond to the comments on that post.)

This time, however, I’m more struck by the implications of the sheer numbers alone for the larger system. That’s a truly ridiculous amount of people, and if you don’t see that something must be terribly wrong with the society if that’s what it’s doing, you’re nuts. A higher incarceration rate than apartheid South Africa? With so much power and wealth, that’s the best you can do with our social structure? (Since the prison population has only risen to such insane levels since the 80s, the argument cannot be made that such incarceration rates are necessary to “make America number one”, as American power was consolidated before then.)

The numbers are simply mind-boggling.

James Q. Wilson comes out with this gem in the article:

The fact that we have a large prison population by itself is not a central problem because it has contributed to the extraordinary increase in public safety we have had in this country.

Just flat-out wrong. Crime has fallen since the 80s, but again the question is: why aren’t other countries with vastly lower incarceration rates suffering from colossal crime waves? Clearly we don’t know that harsher sentencing actually caused the drop since the 80s, as alluring as that conclusion is to some, because it’s just a known correlation. Obviously there are other ways to approach the problem, ways that other countries use, and which don’t involve being the world leader in locking people up.

The world leader in locking people up. That’s really not something Americans should tolerate (let alone be proud of), and in any rational discourse this would be a hugely important topic.

*Even without the prison thing, it’s quite clear that America was, to say the least, already problematic as a candidate for ‘leader of the free world’.

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One Response to “We’re Number One”

  1. kevintel Says:

    The high prison population is a sympton of a high crime rate. It may not be right to be locking up so many people, but maybe you need to go further back and ask, are so many people doing things which require them to be removed from society? Maybe this is the case, and then the real question becomes why are there so many criminals? Why are so many people engaging in activities that require them to be removed from society?

    Another question is, is there an alternative? If someone demonstrates a need to be punished for some activity, or needs to be removed from society, how should this be dealt with by the state? Going to back to village lynch mobs is one answer, or a fight to the death between two wronged parties.

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