Tuesday, April 22, 2008

More evidence of American exceptionalism

Alternate title: We're number one!

Here's the lede from an article that Spot saw on Tuesday night in the online New York Times:

The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population. But it has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.

Indeed, the United States leads the world in producing prisoners, a reflection of a relatively recent and now entirely distinctive American approach to crime and punishment. Americans are locked up for crimes — from writing bad checks to using drugs — that would rarely produce prison sentences in other countries. And in particular they are kept incarcerated far longer than prisoners in other nations.

George Bush has told us since 9/11 what good people we are, Spot. What gives?

That's a great question, grasshopper. The answer has a lot of people puzzled. Here's what the reporter at the NYT, Adam Liptak, says:

Criminologists and legal scholars in other industrialized nations say they are mystified and appalled by the number and length of American prison sentences.

The United States has, for instance, 2.3 million criminals behind bars, more than any other nation, according to data maintained by the International Center for Prison Studies at King’s College London.

China, which is four times more populous than the United States, is a distant second, with 1.6 million people in prison. (That number excludes hundreds of thousands of people held in administrative detention, most of them in China’s extrajudicial system of re-education through labor, which often singles out political activists who have not committed crimes.)

Even those civil libertarians, the Russians, are mere pikers compared to us:

The United States comes in first, too, on a more meaningful list from the prison studies center, the one ranked in order of the incarceration rates. It has 751 people in prison or jail for every 100,000 in population. (If you count only adults, one in 100 Americans is locked up.)

The only other major industrialized nation that even comes close is Russia, with 627 prisoners for every 100,000 people. The others have much lower rates. England’s rate is 151; Germany’s is 88; and Japan’s is 63.

The median among all nations is about 125, roughly a sixth of the American rate.

Gosh, Spotty, that means that every day, several of your readers are behind bars!

No, Spot doesn't think you can draw that conclusion, grasshopper, but it's a sobering thought. In addition to Russia and China, think of all the other Shangri-Las that the US had to beat out for the title: Egypt, Pakistan, Jordan, Myanmar, Kazakhstan; it's truly impressive.

According to the article, this is a fairly recent phenomenon, too, extending back only to the last quarter of the twentieth century.

It seems that we are neither as free as we thought, nor as brave as we thought if we think we have to lock all these people us to keep the rest of us safe. And Moose, this is certainly one of those growth areas in government you've been complaining about.

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