Where did we go wrong with the prison system in the United States? How does a country that values freedom, end up with the highest incarceration rate out in the developed world?
Even more important, is prison the best way to reduce crime? Intuitively, one would think that locking offenders in jail is a great way to reduce crime, it provides an incentive to obey the law and prevents the lawless population from committing crimes at least for the duration of their prison sentence.
But Vikrant Reddy, Senior Research Fellow at the Charles Koch Institute, takes a bold stand suggesting that prison itself may be the wrong approach for most criminals. In a recent interview in NYC at ImpactNYC‘s event on Criminal Justice Reform, Reddy suggested incarceration may be effective in only some instances; but as it stands today, tough prison sentences exacerbate the problem of crime.
It’s a complex issue and certainly a difficult one to untangle, but Reddy suggests that harsh prison terms leave offenders scarred and marginalized for life. Parolees leave prison with no opportunities for employment and they often return to crime as the only avenue for survival. At the end of their sentences, parolees have no formal job training, no savings, no positive social network; and prison is certainly not the place to learn self-respect, manners, or how to behave in civil society. If the goal is to produce responsible self-directed citizens, prison is the last place to achieve it.
“At a certain point, incarceration becomes counterproductive”
If prison breeds crime, then our extraordinarily high incarceration rate does not bode well for the future. In fact, we may eventually see crime rates rise dramatically if Reddy’s concerns turn out to be true. But many question the claims that our incarceration rate is particularly high. The following statistics make it clear that there is no doubt that we have one of the highest incarceration in the world, even if there is error due to lack of transparency in some countries.
Perhaps one reason we have so many citizens in prison, is that there are simply too many laws.
Does the United States have the highest incarceration rate in the world?
No, they do not. The United States has the second highest. The tiny nation of Seychelles, which also tries and incarcerates Somali pirates, has the highest rate in the world, squeezing past the United States. The U.S. takes the lead rather handily after that.
Even this listing doesn’t make the United States outlier status entirely clear, because it was selected somewhat randomly, it is just a list of countries and places around the world that would be familiar to most readers and yet operate with a variety of economic and political systems.
Out of 221 countries and territories, only seven have an incarceration rate that is above 500 per 100,000 of population. They are Seychelles, U.S.A., St. Kitts, Turkmenistan, Virgin Islands, El Salvador, and Cuba. This is hardly the company one would expect the leader of the free world to keep.
And even that statistic fails to demonstrate the true outlier status of the United States in terms of incarceration. There are only 70 countries on the list of 221 that incarcerate more than 200 citizens out of every 100,000.
75% of the countries and territories worldwide incarcerate fewer than 200 citizens per 100,000.
89% of the world incarcerates fewer than 400 citizens per 100,000.
If the United States is aiming for world leader status in social dysfunction, the expansion of the prison state is one of the best ways to get there. It is tremendously expensive and wasteful on a dollar-cost basis. It is even more wasteful in terms of human dignity and achievement.