Is any one crime to blame for the high U.S. imprisonment rate?

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Dear Cecil: I’ve heard the U.S. has the highest percentage of its population incarcerated of any country in the world. Is there a single crime or category of crime in which we excel that puts us in the top spot? Or are we just better at committing crime across the board? My guess is the war on drugs accounts for much of our prison population. Can you provide a breakdown showing how we’ve achieved our less-than-enviable position? David Burns


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

The drug war contributed, but it’s not the major factor behind our crazy high imprisonment rate. What does explain it then? I’ll just say the more you delve into this, the more complicated it gets.

Let’s review the incarceration rate, first discussed in this space in 2004. The U.S. currently has more than 321 million people. According to the World Prison Population List, the United States has a total prison population, including pretrial detainees, of 2.24 million. This works out to 716 prisoners per 100,000 people, the highest rate in the world.

Let that soak in. Consider:

  • The U.S. has 4.4 percent of the world’s population but 22 percent of the world’s prisoners. For sheer numbers, our only close competitors are Russia (680,000 prisoners) and China (1.64 million sentenced prisoners plus 650,000 in pretrial/administrative detention).
  • In terms of imprisonment rate, our closest competitors are mostly tiny island countries. (Number two: St. Kitts and Nevis, 714.) Among major nations, the closest to us is Russia, 475. The world average is around 150; for western European countries, it’s around 100. Up till 1970, that’s what it was for us, too.
  • The U.S. incarceration rate bears no close relation to the crime rate. The percentage of Americans in prison rose sharply between 1970 and 1999 and has fluctuated since then but remains close to the historical peak. In contrast, U.S. rates for violent and property crime started heading up in the early 1960s, peaked in 1991, and since then have fallen by roughly half. In other words, for the past quarter century, the U.S. crime and imprisonment rates have headed in opposite directions.

Some will say: Well, of course — the crime rate has gone down because all the troublemakers are in jail! That’s not proven, but even if it were, think what it would say about us: we throw the book at people less because of the crimes they did commit than because of the ones they might commit. In other words, a country that prides itself on being a beacon of liberty has more or less consciously adopted a policy of long-term preemptive detention.

But to repeat: things are complicated. You think most prisoners are there because of drug offenses? That’s true at the federal level, where more than half the convicts are in because of drugs. However, at the state level — and the states account for 87 percent of U.S. prisoners — drug crimes account for only 16 percent of those doing time. The majority of state prisoners — 54 percent as of 2012 — were convicted of violent crimes, 19 percent of property crimes, and the remainder everything else (e.g., drunk driving).

For state and federal prisoners combined, 20 percent were convicted of drug offenses. Assuming that 20 percent of the 744,500 U.S. pretrial detainees (as of 2012) are likewise in on drug charges, then if everyone behind bars for drug offenses were freed, the U.S. incarceration rate would be 573, which would still put us third highest in the world. In short, you can’t blame the imprisonment epidemic specifically on the war on drugs. Informed opinion attributes it to harsh laws and policies spurred by fear of rising crime during the 1970s and 80s that imposed stiffer penalties for a broad spectrum of offenses.

Now let’s stride boldly into a minefield. Is the U.S. imprisonment rate high because we’re locking up so many black people? At first blush, no — leave black prisoners out of the picture and the U.S. incarceration rate is still 458, putting us in a tie for tenth worldwide with St. Martin. If we don’t count any nonwhites, the incarceration rate would be 239, still well above the world average.

Some will say: the white convicts were caught up in draconian sentencing laws mainly aimed at minorities, and specifically at black men.

Let’s break that down. Do stiffer drug penalties single out black people? The numbers say no. Of state prisoners, 14 percent of whites are in for drugs, 15 percent of Hispanics, and 16 percent of blacks — no big diff.

Violent crime? That’s another story. Of state prisoners, 49 percent of whites were convicted of violent offenses vs. 58 percent of blacks and 60 percent of Hispanics. Inquiring further, we find whites constitute 80 percent of the U.S. population and 32 percent of imprisoned violent criminals. For Hispanics, it’s 17 percent and 23 percent; for black people, 13 percent and 41 percent.

Conclusion: The appallingly high number of U.S. prisoners can’t be attributed to any one class of offenses. Rather, it’s resulted from get-tough-on-crime laws that have fallen most heavily on black men.

Cecil Adams

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