NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


April 25, 2008

The United States leads the world in producing prisoners, a reflection of a relatively recent and now entirely distinctive American approach to crime and punishment. Americans are locked up for crimes that would rarely produce prison sentences in other countries.  And in particular they are kept incarcerated far longer than prisoners in other nations, says the New York Times.

For example:

  • The United States has less than 5 percent of the world's population, but it has almost a quarter of the world's prisoners.
  • The United States has 2.3 million criminals behind bars, more than any other nation, according to King's College London.
  • The United States comes in first, too, in terms of incarceration rates, with 751 people in prison or jail for every 100,000 in population.

Still, it is the length of sentences that truly distinguishes American prison policy.  Burglars in the United States serve an average of 16 months in prison, compared with 5 months in Canada and 7 months in England.

One should pause before too quickly concluding that European sentences are appropriate, says Paul G. Cassell, a former federal judge.

For example:

  • From 1981 to 1996, according to Justice Department statistics, the risk of punishment rose in the United States and fell in England.
  • The crime rates predictably moved in the opposite directions, falling in the United States and rising in England.

The simple truth is that imprisonment works, says Kent Scheidegger and Michael Rushford of the Stanford Law and Policy Review.  Locking up criminals for longer periods reduces the level of crime.  The benefits of doing so far offset the costs.

Source: Adam Liptak, "Inmate Count In U.S. Dwarfs Other Nations,'" New York Times, April 23, 2008.

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