I read an article the other day that mentioned an interesting factoid: the U.S. has a higher incarceration rate than any other country in the world. I'd seen this before, but hadn't checked into it. So yesterday, just poking around a bit, I did a little research and came up with this list of incarceration rates by country
I find this simple list quite sobering. The U.S. incarcerates (jails or imprisons) 730 people out of every 100,000; a rate of 0.73%. By itself, that number doesn't really convey very much. But consider this: Finland – a very modern society – incarcerates just 59 per 100,000 – twelve times fewer than the U.S., and Japan incarcerates even fewer. Or this, from the other side of the spectrum: the repressive despots of Burma incarcerate just 120 per 100,000 – a sixth the U.S. rate.
Amongst the other countries with high incarceration rates (though none are particularly close to us): Russia, Rwanda, and Belarus.
I know that drug-related incarcerations account for a high fraction of our inmates: between half and two-thirds, depending on who's doing the estimating. But our incarceration rate is so high that even if you removed two-thirds of them, we'd still
be in the top 15% of all countries.
I don't really know what this means, other than that there's something about our society that is in fact quite different than the other countries we think of as our peers. My long time readers will know that I favor legalization of drugs (I know, I'm a radical – but I have trouble seeing any
actual value in the “war on drugs”). But even with the effects of drug-related crime removed, there's still a very large difference that comes from other causes. What those are, I haven't a clue. It's clearly not as simple as our freedom to buy firearms, because other countries with liberal firearms laws have low incarceration rates. Most likely there isn't any simple explanation.
A look at U.S. incarceration rates over time
(the graph at right) shows that our incarceration rates have been quite high at least since 1925. With the onset of the war on drugs, the rates increased very quickly.
I'd like to learn more about the causes of our high incarceration rates, so I've started a search for reliable sources of information. Drop me a line if you know of any, please...