Our Massive Prison System Targets Poor Minorities and Destroys Lives. Does It Reduce Crime?

The following is an excerpt from  A Country Called Prison: Mass Incarceration and the Making of a New Nation by Mary D. Looman and John D. Carl (Oxford University Press, 2015):


Most of us have broken the law at some point in our lives, even if it is just driving at an excessive speed. Frequently the difference between criminals and noncriminals is the act of getting caught. We know many noncriminals who have done the same thing as criminals but who have not been caught, and no one is the wiser.

Data show that many people have used an illegal drug. A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that approximately 40% of high school seniors have tried marijuana by the end of their senior year (Centers for Disease Control [CDC], 2011.). The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that over 20% of Americans between the ages of 18 to 25 have used an illegal substance in the past month. These reports indicate that most of us either have or know someone who has done something illegal in the last month (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration [SAMHSA], 2012). If the something is using illegal drugs, it could very well be a ticket to the country within our country called Prison.

The difference between the 20-year-old who lights up a joint at a fraternity party and the 20-year-old who lights up in a public park and is arrested is less about the act and more about the person’s status. The college student is protected by a perception that getting high is just a social “rite of passage.” He will have a funny memory to tell on the golf course in years to come. Meanwhile, the poor young man smoking pot in the park may end up in jail because he has nowhere to hide. Since the 1980s, the United States has been experimenting with an interesting method of social control. The country hopes that sending millions of wrongdoers to prison will somehow change their behavior. Such a policy is not only expensive but also has made the United States the world leader in prison populations. Don’t believe it? Review the data that follow.

Table P.1 shows the top-10 countries in prison populations worldwide according to the World Prison Brief, as well as the population-size ranking of those countries according to the U.S. Census. These data show that the United States incarcerates more of its own citizens than any other nation on earth. The high prison population numbers in the United States dwarf many of its similarly sized counterparts. In addition, the United States, which is approximately one-eighth the size of India and China combined, has more prisoners than those two countries put together. At the same time, the United States, which is only slightly larger than Indonesia in total population, incarcerates 14 times more people than that country. So does population size necessarily influence the incarceration rate? Perhaps. But one thing is clear: Incarceration is a priority in the United States.

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Of course, total numbers only tell part of the story. The total number of inmates in a country could certainly be affected by its size. Total numbers can also be misleading because some countries may not have the same level of economic development and quality of law enforcement that the United States does. For example, if a country has few high-value, lightweight items, like laptop computers, there is less to steal. In this particular country, because everyone is poor, then it seems unlikely that such a nation would have high crime rates. A more important question is, “How does the United States compare to other countries of all sizes?”

Using rates of incarceration allows for a fair comparison. Rates in Table P.2 represent the number of incarcerated people per every 100,000 of the population. Table P.2 shows the top-10 prison population rates according to the World Prison Brief and the population-size ranking of those countries according to the U.S. Census.

According to these data, the United States ranks second in the rate of incarceration for every 100,000 people of population. The winner in the incarceration rate competition is the tiny Indian Ocean island of Seychelles, with a rate of more than 860 prisoners for every 100,000 people. The United States, in second place, imprisons 707 people out of every 100,000 (World Prison Brief, 2013).

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Table P.2 also provides the rank of the country by the size of its population. Note that the United States is the most populated country on the list. Most of the countries listed are small, and none of them, except Russia, would meet the criteria for a developed nation. Thus, the data appears to demonstrate that with the exception of Russia and the United States, most countries with high incarceration rates are small and poor.

Comparing the United States to these nations may seem unfair and perhaps misleading because we are not similar to most of them. Nearly all of them are underdeveloped. Except for Russia, most of their populations are small, and some, like Cuba and Russia, are known for repressive leadership regimes that incarcerate people who disagree with government policies (but these types of prisoners are probably not reported).

Since the countries that report high rates of incarceration are so different from the United States, another question comes to mind. How does the U.S.  incarceration rate stack up against similarly wealthy countries? The ten largest economies in the world in gross domestic product (GDP), according to the International Monetary Fund, are listed in Table P.3. It ranks the countries by size of GDP and shows their value in trillions of dollars. The table also ranks the countries by prison population per 100,000 people, as well as their rate of incarceration.

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As is commonly known, the United States is the largest economy on the planet. What you’ll notice is that, with the exception of Russia and the United States, there seems to be almost an inverse relationship between wealth and incarceration rates. Wealthy countries, except the United States and Russia, generally have low rates of incarceration. These data suggest that for most of the countries that are similar to the United States in economic standing, wealth does not increase incarceration rates. So, the claim that somehow because the United States is wealthy it has high crime does not seem to fit international comparisons.

To illustrate this point further, as you consider these data, you will notice some interesting facts. Japan, the third-richest country in the world, is about a quarter of the economic size of the United States but has an incarceration rate approximately 13 times lower than ours. Germany’s incarceration rate is about 9 times lower, while that of France is about 7 times lower.

These data seem to raise more questions than they answer. Wealth and incarceration rates do not seem to be obviously related. Perhaps the answer is that the United States simply has more crime. After all, if we incarcerate more of our citizens than our wealthy, industrialized counterparts, perhaps it is because our citizens are more criminal than theirs. Just as with incarceration rates, international data tell the story.

Table P.4 provides comparison data for the United States and a few other wealthy, industrialized democracies. Like the rates in the other tables, these rates are per 100,000 people of the population of the country. Additionally, these countries were chosen because most criminologists would trust the data from these nations. In other words, their reporting is believed to be as accurate as that of the United States, and so a fair comparison can be made.

It is important to note that many of the countries listed in these tables are likely to keep good records and openly report all their incarcerated citizens. This is especially true for the modern, industrial democracies that are listed in Table P.4. For other nations that might not be in that category, or that might be wealthy but not democratic, we should accept that the data they report may not be accurate. However, when we consider modern, industrial, wealthy democracies, comparisons likely are fair.

These data show some surprising results. You will see that contrary to what many think, the United States does not have the highest crime rates in the world. In fact, its total crime rate is less than that of the United Kingdom and almost the same as Germany’s. The United States does have significantly higher rates of homicide. Yet the rates are not higher when it comes to other types of crime such as theft, robbery, and assault. The data do not support the claim that the United States has significantly higher crime rates.

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Another important category in which the United States has the highest rates of crime is drug offenses. The U.S. decision to criminalize illegal drug use and punish harshly anyone associated with it is, in our estimation, the main reason that we have now created a country within our nation that we call Prison.

While criminality may be part of high U.S. incarceration rates, it is also important to note that the rates of certain crimes do not match the ratio of those incarcerated for them. For example, the United States incarcerates at a rate of 707 per 100,000 people, while France incarcerates at a rate of 102. But France’s crime rate is not 7 times lower than that of the United States.

In fact, France’s crime rate is only slightly lower. A simple review of these nations’ data and total crime rates show clearly one thing. While some of these nations may have lower total crime rates, the rates seem to be minimally related to their incarceration rates. Therefore, proclaiming that “the U.S.  must incarcerate more people because there are more criminals” is not supported by the data.

If these countries have similar rates of crime, why do they have lower rates of incarceration? The simple answer is that these countries have different social policies and cultural attitudes about incarceration. The United States decided that prison is the best and, frequently, the only way to control people who do things the majority of citizens don’t like.

Put another way, the United States incarcerates those who frighten society, as well as those at whom society is mad. No one questions the wisdom of incarcerating violent offenders—those we fear. Most of the nations listed in the tables do just that. The difference in incarceration rates between the United States and other countries is often in the way that these other countries punish people who do things that their societies don’t like. For example, no one likes to see someone drunk or high on drugs in public. It is unpleasant to view an addict in the subway. However, should we really spend millions of dollars incarcerating these people?

Prisons are ubiquitous in the United States. They have become a part of life for many. Almost everyone knows someone who has either been to prison or works in one. Prisons are not just centers for punishment; they are also places to work.

The Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that prisons always need workers (BLS, 2012). If you have a high school diploma and desire to take a bit of risk, you too can be a “prison guard.” The BLS reports that the median annual salary for a correctional officer is $38,970, or $749 per week. Compare that to the current minimum hourly wage of $7.25, which adds up to $290 per week. You can see that guarding the incarcerated is a relatively well-paying job. It requires no advanced training or certification, since on-the-job training is provided. No wonder that in 2012 more than 400,000 people in the United States worked correctional jobs (Bureau of Justice Statistics [BJS]).

Of course, correctional officers are the tip of the proverbial prison employment iceberg. There are more than 90,000 probation officers and correctional treatment specialists (BJS). In addition, literally millions of people work in prison-related businesses. Criminal justice has become not only a way of life for many in the United States but also a way to make money.

A report on prisons by the Pew Trusts identifies that, from 1977 to 2003, state and local expenditures on prisons increased by over 1,100%. Meanwhile, spending for education and health care grew by less than 600% and public welfare expenditures grew by a little over 700% (Pew Charitable Trusts, 2013). Spending on prisons has continued to grow at significantly higher rates than other important human services. This diversion of money from the public or social good to prisons raises an interesting question. Are we spending tax money wisely when we spend it on prisons?

The government funds social services or the public good in order to improve the lives of the country’s citizens. Generally, this spending is intended to benefit large numbers of people. If your town is building a new park, then the government is spending that money on the justification that the park will be a public good. Defining what is and is not a public good is the source of great political debate. Those on the far Left suggest that almost all public services should be deemed as public goods, while those on the far Right suggest that almost nothing, other than military protection, should be viewed as such. We cannot hope to resolve this debate, but we do raise the question: Is spending money on prisons really a social good or are we inadvertently developing a new nation inside U.S. borders? 

Reprinted from A COUNTRY CALLED PRISON: Mass Incarceration and the Making of a New Nation by Mary D. Looman and John D. Carl with permission from Oxford University Press.  Copyright © 2015 by Oxford University Press.

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