U.S. Incarceration Policies


FACT: The United States comprises 4.27 percent of the world’s population yet 25 percent of the world’s total prison population.  The rates of incarceration are higher in the United States than any other county, and folks, that includes Russia and China. Only North Korea, where statistics are hard to come by (but it is estimated by human rights organizations to be 600 to 800 prisoners per 100,000 in total country population) might the incarceration rate reach the rates in the U.S.  For some incarceration rate comparisons consider that the worldwide average is 145 persons locked up per 100,000, Russia has 615 inmates per 100,000, China, 118, and the U.S.? A whopping 737 per 100,000. Why?

Is it that the United States has so many more criminals than other countries? No. Study after study has shown the United States to have a lower crime rate than many countries, ranking number 45 out of 118 on the crime index by country for 2019.

Theories abound as to why the United States incarcerates so many people compared to the rest of the world. Many believe it stems from the 1980s when the U.S. politics got “tough on crime.” Others might point to the culture of enthusiast prosecution prevalent in the U.S. Still others blame a lack of social services and alternativeprograms available in the U.S. But that wouldn’t explain why other countries that have much higher crime rates than the U.S. and limited social services, but still have far lower incarceration rates (e.g. Brazil, South Africa, and Mexico). Well, you might surmise those countries have higher crime rates because they don’t lock up as many criminals as the United States, but that conclusion would be facile.

The reason for the large prison population in the U.S. likely has many explanations but it is increasingly apparent that our system of punishment isn’t working that well and it is costing American taxpayers a bundle. Now the good news is that the incarceration rate in the United States is at its lowest since 1996. As recently as 2008, the incarceration rate was 1,000 inmates per 100,000 in population. With the current rate of 737 per 1,000, that is a substantial decrease. One reason for this may be that the crime rates in the United States have fallen 74 percent from 1993 to now. The federal government and some states, Californiain particular, have revised sentencing laws. Additionally, drug crimesare not punished in the way the way they were twenty years ago.

It might be instructive to compare the United States to the more developed countries in Europe. Many of the advanced countries in Europe take a totally different approach to criminal sentencing. The U.S.  system focuses on punishment; many European countries focus on re-socializing and rehabilitating criminals. Before you dismiss that approach, consider that by sentencing a criminal to prison, he or she is socialized into the prison system making it difficult to reintegrate into society upon release. Also consider that criminals who serve prison sentences in the United States pay for their crime for the rest of their life — upon release, they often can’t find jobs or places to live, they can’t vote in many states, they are forever suspected by law enforcement. In short, they are branded for life. If you ask me, that seems to be a recipe for making a one-time criminal into a career criminal.

In many European countries (and other countries as well) prison sentences are shorter and handed down far less frequently. Instead of prison, punishment is often non-custodial, employing diversion, fines, and community programs. Even crimes considered serious in the U.S. that often result in lengthy prison sentences, such as burglaryand aggravated assault, are diverted by prosecutors away from court judgment and sentencing and sanctioned by fines and community service.

In Germany and the Netherlands, for example, when an offender is sentenced to prison, it is the imprisonment itself that punishes the offender by separating the offender from society, but the punishment stops there. The conditions of incarceration are not punitive. The goal of the prison system in those countries is to give the prisoner the skills needed to live a fully functional life on the outside. Unlike prison conditions in the United States, the prisoners are offered a wide range of opportunities for learning and growth; their lives are not regimented as they are in U.S. prison systems. The prisoners enjoy a great degree of independence including making their own meals, wearing their own clothes, choosing the activities they wish to participate in, and getting paid real money for their work or participation in educational programs. The prison staff are well-trained and emphasize positive reinforcement rather than punitive measures.

Giving the prisoners this degree of dignity establishes a sense of self-worth and purpose in the prisoner’s life. Upon release from prison in Germany or the Netherlands, the state seeks to re-integrate the prisoner into society—the former prisoner does not lose the right to vote, is often given certain social services and does not suffer the criminal branding that follows ex-prisoners in the U.S. It would be interesting to review the recidivism rates in these countries versus the United States, but that will have to wait for another blog post.

Orange County criminal defense attorney William Weinberg would like to see every deserving offender get a chance at rehabilitation and the opportunity to re-integrate into society. If there is an alternative to incarceration, he will make every effort to see that his client gets that opportunity. If you have been arrested or charged with a crime, Attorney Weinberg offers a free consultation to explore your options. Contacthim at his Irvine office at 949-474-8008 or by email at bill@williamweinberg.comto set up your complimentary consultation.