MORE people, per capita, are in jail in the United States than in any other country on earth, according to a recent report by the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based research group.
It used to be that South Africa and the Soviet Union kept more of their citizens in jail than did the US - that was the finding of a landmark 1979 study on international rates of incarceration by the National Council on Crime and Deliquency. But now the US heads the list. For every 100,000 people in the US, 426 are sentenced to prison or are being held in pretrial detention. The US also imprisons black men at a rate four times higher than that of South Africa (see chart).
Rates of incarceration aren't available for all countries - China is notably absent from the Sentencing Project's report for.
The Sentencing Project report doesn't analyze the reasons why the US leads the world in this dubious arena, other than to observe that US crime rates are higher than in other countries and that US criminal justice policies have favored imprisonment.
American murder rates, for instance, are at least seven times higher than most of Europe. And the report says that "thousands are in prison due to policy choices - as a result of mandatory minimum sentences, restrictive parole policies, sentencing guidelines, and other policies."
The US incarceration rate, says Alabama corrections commissioner Morris Thigpen, reflects a "philosophy that all of us have allowed to become so (entrenched): that the way we handle criminals is by totally removing them from society, by locking them up."
"I think," he says, "that people are beginning to question whether that really solves anything," although he stresses firm support for imprisoning violent criminals. "Some people realize now that just to routinely turn to incarceration (in cases of property and nonviolent crimes) is an unwise decision."
To slow the rate of incarceration the report advises the repeal of mandatory sentencing laws, that those fighting the "war on drugs" redefine drug abuse as a public health and not a criminal justice problem, and that law-enforcement officials focus more on community needs and crime prevention. It also urges wider use of alternatives to incarceration and, for those in prison, easier access to education and job training.
But most of all, the Sentencing Project urges widespread study and discussion of crime and punishment. The reaction to their report shows why national dialogue is needed: While corrections officials like Mr. Thigpen viewed the new statistic with grim foreknowledge, the press coverage, conveyed with a tone of dismay and shock, suggested that the public would greet the news with surprise.
The report is a simple publication, without fancy printing or binding. It consists of a few tables and 15 pages of accompanying recommendations and comments. But it drew an impressive blast of press attention. Some 700 newspapers have written about the findings, and more than 50 papers have editorialized on the subject, according to Marc Mauer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project and the author of the report.
The US wins "The Grand Slammer Award," opined the Blade of Toledo, Ohio. It's a "shameful world record," said the Oakland Tribune. The US is "At the Top of Wrong List," pronounced the Washington Post.
There wasn't much surprise on the part of those in the business of incarcerating US lawbreakers and alleged criminals - state-corrections commissioners, wardens, and other law-enforcement executives. In interviews, some of these officials said the Sentencing Project's report, and the reaction it caused, are signs that a longstanding political consensus that crime should be battled with long prison terms may be waning.
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