Land of the Free? And Home of the Brave (New World)

I’d like to examine the factors behind the conclusion of my last post.  Namely, that, in the last hundred years the U.S. has imprisoned more of its own population than any regimes other than Pol Pot and Stalin.

So are we really just

A) A bunch of criminals that deserve to be locked up?

B) A bunch of overly harsh authoritarians?  

C) All of the above?


These primary factors seem to be driving these high imprisonment numbers:

  • “Tough on Crime” – System that focuses on punishment over rehabilitation

By far the largest influence on imprisonment rates is the simple fact that we as a nation value punishment over rehabilitation.  When we set policies and prioritize resources, this philosophy drives nearly all other decisions and outcomes.  OK, so we are no Saudi Arabia -where we lop off body parts on the slightest whim-but we are not exactly the Netherlands either.

  • “Tough on Crime” – Mandatory Sentencing Programs and Harsher Guidelines 

Primarily designed as a tactic in the “War on Drugs” and as a (over)reaction to a few overly-lenient judges, legislatures enacted Mandatory Sentencing Programs that have dramatically swelled prison populations.  “Three Strikes” laws are no-doubt also a factor.  People forget that, punishment aside, prisons were primarily designed to keep violent people away from society, but today most of those incarcerated are non-violent drug offenders. 

  • Prisons as Economic Assets – a Jobs and Massive Building Program

No longer considered NIMBY’s, many communities (mostly disadvantaged and rural) now view prisons as economic assets with very few drawbacks.  The economic benefits of prisons are many: construction, employees, purchasing services, and prison industries.

  • Higher Rates of Crime for Some Categories

Like Australia, we also have roots as a Penal Colony.  So let’s face it – we as a nation are more criminal for some categories of crime.   Thus, the U.S. has a much higher rate of murder and rape than other countries.  But these offenses are a small percentage of the overall number of people incarcerated.  For more common crimes, like assault and theft, the U.S. is actually lower than comparable Western countries. 

Somewhat related to a higher crime rate, an alarming statistic is the fact that 2 out of 3 people on parole will be readmitted to prison within 3 years.  1 out of 3 people (50% of the number returned) are readmitted to prison for technical parole violations (failing to report to their parole officer for instance – where all you usually need is a Judges order).  This is a 700% increase since 1980. 

  • Built-in Rewards for more not less

In government, like most enterprises, you are rewarded for doing more not less.  Prosecuting more crime, leads to more staff, higher budgets, and ultimately higher pay for whoever is at the top of the food chain.  Imagine if local police stations were given bonuses for sending few cases into the judicial system – do you not think they would figure out alternate ways to solve things at the community level?  But pure self-promotion aside, certainly no government official ever wants another Willie Horton situation and no one wants to release someone who is clearly a threat to the community.

  • “Overcharging”

Overcharging is the dirty little secret of the criminal justice system.  It is the built-in acknowledgement that because most cases will eventually be plea bargained that prosecutors feel they have to “overcharge” for additional offenses.  Overcharging is when you take a simple crime – say stealing a lawnmower – and charge the person with far more serious offenses.  So for instance, in my state, when someone is charged with theft that person is almost always charged with receiving stolen property (because didn’t they also receive it when they took it?).  It’s a win-win situation for prosecutors – they get to meet in the middle sometimes and make going to trial even more risky for the defendant.  One of the more egregious recent examples of this came from Steamboat Springs, CO where 2 college graduates received 6 months jail time for taking trash.   




So what are we to conclude?  Are we a bunch of degenerate criminals or harsh authoritarians?  Like most things the answer is probably somewhere in the middle.  That is if we as a society ever attempt to answer this question at all. 

Unfortunately, we as a nation don’t have a very good track record on important issues that affect forgotten segments of our population – remember that 20% of impoverished children still do not have health insurance.  And they haven’t even done anything for society to hold a grudge against them yet.  Oh well, I guess they can get free health care when they go to prison – and more and more of them will end there if our policies don’t change.


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