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
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
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.
When Bob Watson, Delaware's corrections commissioner, began his
career in 1953, he saw rehabilitation programs losing ground to a
heavy emphasis on law and order and punishment. …