CRIME AND PUNISHMENT IN THE UNITED STATES: MYTHS, REALITIES, AND POSSIBILITIES
THE United States imprisons its population at a rate from five to fifteen times that of other advanced industrial societies, yet we continue to suffer the worst levels of serious violent crime in the developed world. In California, under the state's Draconian "three strikes and you're out" law, a shoplifter with two prior convictions for burglary can be sentenced to life in prison. Yet more people are murdered in the city of Los Angeles, with 3.5 million people, than in all of England and Wales, with 50 million.1
The stark combination of stunningly high rates of violence with equally stunning efforts at repressive control is a compelling signal that something is deeply wrong in our society, and a powerful indictment of our criminal justice policies. In a more reasonable world, this might lead us to rethink our approach to crime, and to search for more effective ways to prevent it, both inside and outside of the criminal justice system. But, with some exceptions, that isn't what has happened. Instead, we have mainly opted to continue the failed policies of the past twenty-five years. For a generation, the public discussion of crime in America has been dominated by an ideology that serves to obscure the social and political implications of our high levels of violence and incarceration, and to justify the continued expansion of a penal system that dwarfs anything in the rest of the industrial world, or in our own history.
Some version of that ideology can be encountered almost daily in editorial columns, legislative chambers, and campaign speeches. The story most Americans are likely to hear about crime and punishment goes