Understanding the United States' Incarceration Rate

By Pizzi, William T. | Judicature, March/April 2012 | Go to article overview

Understanding the United States' Incarceration Rate


Pizzi, William T., Judicature


What has caused prison sentences to climb so sharply and consistently in the last four decades?

Introduction

It is no secret that the United States has an alarming rate of incarceration. Even the popular press has jumped on the fact that the U.S. incarceration rate has reached multiples of the rates in other western countries. A 2010 story on the topic in The Economist featured a dramatic cover illustration of Lady Liberty herself peering out from behind the bars of a prison cell.1 The article intoned that "[n]o other rich country is nearly as punitive as the Land of the Free." As proof of that fact, it noted that the United States' incarceration rate is five times greater than Britain's, nine times greater than Germany's and twelve times greater than Japan's.2

In 2008, the New York Times also published a feature article on the topic of the U.S. incarceration rate, complete with an interactive chart that allowed readers to click on different countries around the world and compare incarceration rates.3 When one clicked on the United States and then on other countries, one saw quickly why the article was entitled inmate Count in U.S. Dwarfs Other Nations.' While the U.S. rate had climbed to 751 citizens per 100,000, the rates in other western countries were far, far lower. England's incarceration rate was only 151. Canada's rate was 108, and Germany incarcerated only 88 citizens per 100,000.4

The Times article also included a timeline showing the U.S. incarceration rate from 1925 until 2006.5 What is fascinating and puzzling about the rate is the fact that the chart showed the U.S. rate holding rather steady through the period between 1925 and 1975 with an incarceration rate of roughly 150 to 175 citizens incarcerated per 100,000. Starting in the late 1970s, the rate began to climb sharply and consistently for the next four decades, until it reached its present lofty level.

This historical trend line is somewhat baffling. In those decades of the early and middle twentieth century, when racial discrimination was widespread and when constitutional protections for criminal suspects were comparatively weak, the U.S. incarceration rate stayed steady. Yet, in the period since the 1970s, when our criminal justice system seemed much improved, and we had made considerable strides in our efforts to eliminate racial discrimination, the United States began incarcerating more and more of its citizens for longer and longer periods of time.

The key question is: what has caused prison sentences in the U.S. in the last four decades to become - in the words of criminologist Michael Tonry - "far harsher than in any country to which the United States would ordinarily be compared"?6

The standard response is to blame politicians. Thus, the Economist, after noting that the U.S. incarceration rate has quadrupled since 1970, explains that since then,

... the voters, alarmed at a surge in violent crime, have demanded fiercer sentences. Politicians have obliged. New laws have removed from judges much of their discretion to set a sentence that takes full account of the circumstances of the offence. Since no poiitician wants to be soft on crime, such laws, mandating minimum sentences, are seldom softened. On the contrary, they tend to get harder.7

Certainly, horrifying crimes have often led the public to demand tougher sentencing laws. Thus, the killing of Jenna Grieshaber in New York by a parolee led to the passage of "Jenna's law," which requires that those convicted of violent offenses serve 85 percent of their maximum sentence before becoming eligible for parole.8 "Jessica's law," increased sentences for sex offenses in Florida (and inspired similar legislation in many other states) after a nine-year old was abducted, raped and killed in that state.9 Finally, the horrific murder of Polly Klaas, a twelveyear old dragged at knifepoint from a slumber party at her mother's home, paved the way in California for the passage of the so-called "three strikes" law in that state which mandated a life sentence upon a third conviction. …

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