Interesting bit of news from the International Herald-Tribune:

International Herald Tribune

U.S. prison population dwarfs that of other nations

By Adam Liptak
Wednesday, April 23, 2008

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.

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.)

San Marino, with a population of about 30,000, is
at the end of the long list of 218 countries
compiled by the center. It has a single prisoner.

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.

There is little question that the high
incarceration rate here has helped drive down
crime, though there is debate about how much.

Criminologists and legal experts here and abroad
point to a tangle of factors to explain America's
extraordinary incarceration rate: higher levels
of violent crime, harsher sentencing laws, a
legacy of racial turmoil, a special fervor in
combating illegal drugs, the American
temperament, and the lack of a social safety net.
Even democracy plays a role, as judges - many of
whom are elected, another American anomaly -
yield to populist demands for tough justice.

Whatever the reason, the gap between American
justice and that of the rest of the world is enormous and growing.

It used to be that Europeans came to the United
States to study its prison systems. They came away impressed.

"In no country is criminal justice administered
with more mildness than in the United States,"
Alexis de Tocqueville, who toured American
penitentiaries in 1831, wrote in "Democracy in America."

No more.

"Far from serving as a model for the world,
contemporary America is viewed with horror,"
James Whitman, a specialist in comparative law at
Yale, wrote last year in Social Research.
"Certainly there are no European governments
sending delegations to learn from us about how to manage prisons."

Prison sentences here have become "vastly harsher
than in any other country to which the United
States would ordinarily be compared," Michael
Tonry, a leading authority on crime policy, wrote
in "The Handbook of Crime and Punishment."

Indeed, said Vivien Stern, a research fellow at
the prison studies center in London, the American
incarceration rate has made the United States "a
rogue state, a country that has made a decision
not to follow what is a normal Western approach."

The spike in American incarceration rates is
quite recent. From 1925 to 1975, the rate
remained stable, around 110 people in prison per
100,000 people. It shot up with the movement to
get tough on crime in the late 1970s. (These
numbers exclude people held in jails, as
comprehensive information on prisoners held in
state and local jails was not collected until relatively recently.)

The nation's relatively high violent crime rate,
partly driven by the much easier availability of
guns here, helps explain the number of people in American prisons.

"The assault rate in New York and London is not
that much different," said Marc Mauer, the
executive director of the Sentencing Project, a
research and advocacy group. "But if you look at
the murder rate, particularly with firearms, it's much higher."

Despite the recent decline in the murder rate in
the United States, it is still about four times
that of many nations in Western Europe.

But that is only a partial explanation. The
United States, in fact, has relatively low rates
of nonviolent crime. It has lower burglary and
robbery rates than Australia, Canada and England.

People who commit nonviolent crimes in the rest
of the world are less likely to receive prison
time and certainly less likely to receive long
sentences. The United States is, for instance,
the only advanced country that incarcerates
people for minor property crimes like passing bad checks, Whitman wrote.

Efforts to combat illegal drugs play a major role
in explaining long prison sentences in the United
States as well. In 1980, there were about 40,000
people in American jails and prisons for drug
crimes. These days, there are almost 500,000.

Those figures have drawn contempt from European
critics. "The U.S. pursues the war on drugs with
an ignorant fanaticism," said Stern of King's College.

Many American prosecutors, on the other hand, say
that locking up people involved in the drug trade
is imperative, as it helps thwart demand for
illegal drugs and drives down other kinds of
crime. Attorney General Michael Mukasey, for
instance, has fought hard to prevent the early
release of people in federal prison on crack
cocaine offenses, saying that many of them "are
among the most serious and violent offenders."

Still, it is the length of sentences that truly
distinguishes American prison policy. Indeed, the
mere number of sentences imposed here would not
place the United States at the top of the
incarceration lists. If lists were compiled based
on annual admissions to prison per capita,
several European countries would outpace the
United States. But American prison stays are much
longer, so the total incarceration rate is higher.

Burglars in the United States serve an average of
16 months in prison, according to Mauer, compared
with 5 months in Canada and 7 months in England.

Many specialists dismissed race as an important
distinguishing factor in the American prison
rate. It is true that blacks are much more likely
to be imprisoned than other groups in the United
States, but that is not a particularly
distinctive phenomenon. Minorities in Canada,
Britain and Australia are also disproportionately
represented in those nation's prisons, and the
ratios are similar to or larger than those in the United States.

Some scholars have found that English-speaking
nations have higher prison rates.

"Although it is not at all clear what it is about
Anglo-Saxon culture that makes predominantly
English-speaking countries especially punitive,
they are," Tonry wrote last year in "Crime,
Punishment and Politics in Comparative Perspective."

"It could be related to economies that are more
capitalistic and political cultures that are less
social democratic than those of most European
countries," Tonry wrote. "Or it could have
something to do with the Protestant religions
with strong Calvinist overtones that were long influential."

The American character - self-reliant,
independent, judgmental - also plays a role.

"America is a comparatively tough place, which
puts a strong emphasis on individual
responsibility," Whitman of Yale wrote. "That
attitude has shown up in the American criminal justice of the last 30 years."

French-speaking countries, by contrast, have
"comparatively mild penal policies," Tonry wrote.

Of course, sentencing policies within the United
States are not monolithic, and national comparisons can be misleading.

"Minnesota looks more like Sweden than like
Texas," said Mauer of the Sentencing Project.
(Sweden imprisons about 80 people per 100,000 of
population; Minnesota, about 300; and Texas,
almost 1,000. Maine has the lowest incarceration
rate in the United States, at 273; and Louisiana the highest, at 1,138.)

Whatever the reasons, there is little dispute
that America's exceptional incarceration rate has had an impact on crime.

"As one might expect, a good case can be made
that fewer Americans are now being victimized"
thanks to the tougher crime policies, Paul
Cassell, an authority on sentencing and a former
federal judge, wrote in The Stanford Law Review.

From 1981 to 1996, according to Justice
Department statistics, the risk of punishment
rose in the United States and fell in England.
The crime rates predictably moved in the opposite
directions, falling in the United States and rising in England.

"These figures," Cassell wrote, "should give one
pause before too quickly concluding that European sentences are appropriate."

Other commentators were more definitive. "The
simple truth is that imprisonment works," wrote
Kent Scheidegger and Michael Rushford of the
Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in The Stanford
Law and Policy Review. "Locking up criminals for
longer periods reduces the level of crime. The
benefits of doing so far offset the costs."

There is a counterexample, however, to the north.
"Rises and falls in Canada's crime rate have
closely paralleled America's for 40 years," Tonry
wrote last year. "But its imprisonment rate has remained stable."

Several specialists here and abroad pointed to a
surprising explanation for the high incarceration
rate in the United States: democracy.

Most state court judges and prosecutors in the
United States are elected and are therefore
sensitive to a public that is, according to
opinion polls, generally in favor of tough crime
policies. In the rest of the world, criminal
justice professionals tend to be civil servants
who are insulated from popular demands for tough sentencing.

Whitman, who has studied Tocqueville's work on
American penitentiaries, was asked what accounted
for America's booming prison population.

"Unfortunately, a lot of the answer is democracy
- just what Tocqueville was talking about," he
said. "We have a highly politicized criminal justice system."

Blissfully retired after 35 years treating sexual abuse