We can learn things about crime and punishment by looking across national boundaries. For despite many important similarities in how Western nations respond to crime, and in the values that underlie those responses, sentencing and punishment policies vary greatly. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis observed, in New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann, 285 U.S. 262, 311 (1932), that “it is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single, courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory and try social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” Countries likewise can learn from one another's experiments if they will.
The formal similarities are great. Among the Western countries, at least, there is widespread commitment to democratic values and Enlightenment ideals, and the institutions of criminal justice are everywhere much the same. These include professional police, public prosecutors' offices, an independent judiciary, and reliance on imprisonment as the primary sanction for very serious crimes and chronic criminals and on various community penalties for others. There is much more similarity than difference in the content of criminal law doctrine, rules of evidence, and procedural safeguards.
Nonetheless, and despite broad similarity in most countries in crime trends over the past thirty years, sentencing and punishment policies and patterns vary enormously. In the United States, England, and the Netherlands and many other western European countries, crime rates rose rapidly from the mid-1960s until the late 1980s or early 1990s and have been declining since (see, e.g., Downes and Morgan 1997; van Dijk 1997; Mirrlees-Black et al. 1998; Pfeiffer 1998; Bureau of Justice Statistics 1999b). Similarity in crime trends, however, has not been paralleled by similarity in policy or institutional responses. At least four areas for comparison stand out.
First, prevailing beliefs vary greatly among policymakers about the causes of crime and the capacity of criminal justice policy changes to affect crime rates. In