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US imprisonments

Nearly 1 American in 100 is in prison – the exact figure is 0.8% of the population.  This is astonishingly high and 4-5 times the level of other developed countries.  The Australian rate is 0.17% for example. At the Becker and  Posner blog these statistics are discussed.  Becker argues that imprisonment is effective in reducing crime and that crime often does cause real harm. However he still sees imprisonment rates in the US as far too high.  He argues that imprisonment is the wrong punishment for all victimless crimes. An important example he claims is imprisonment for drug offences – eliminating this would cut US imprisonment rates by 30%.

Posner is puzzled by the fact that high crime rates coexist with high rates of imprisonment and offers several explanations.  If blacks has the same rate of imprisonment as whites then the rate falls to 0.6% which is still quite high.  He makes the astute observation that Americans have a high aversion to crime and criminals and the direct cost of the US prisons at $40b is a tiny part of GDP.  Hence there are no strong pressures to reform the system – sticking miscreants in prison might be one of the luxuries a wealthy society can afford to indulge itself in.  There are of course indirect costs of high imprisonment rates that stem from the fact that young potential workers are excluded from the US economy – the US prison population is generally young.

8 comments to US imprisonments

  • rog

    You have to identify the function of prison – is it for detention, correction, punishment, revenge, to keep the rest of us honest – or what? Once you sort through those in detention and set aside those who are a genuine threat to society there are a lot of miserable and unfortunate characters doing and for the most part wasting time.

  • conrad

    Everyone always talks about blacks vs whites, but you could go to any old crappy housing estate or private equivalent where you have integenerational poverty and you’d find high rates of crime for everyone, not just blacks. In Australia, where we don’t have many blacks, the rate of almost everything bad you can think of is about 10* that of the normal population, for example. Given this, I’m surprised no one has bothered to mention “growing up in the left tail of the distribution” which is huge in the US.

  • hc

    Rog, Two functions of imprisonment are to deter crime by criminals (and us) and to take criminals off the street in order to reduce the incidence of crime. Its surprising that with so many off the street and with such a strong (and apparently real) deterrence effect that US crime rates are so high.

    Conrad, The incidence of poverty is so high in the US (particularly among blacks) that race and poverty must be an issue.

  • Gilbert

    I didn’t read Posner blog, but wouldn’t leaving the victimless crime outside of prison could potentially induce more crime with victims? One function of prison as you have said is to keep them off the street so that less crime happen.

  • conrad

    “The incidence of poverty is so high in the US (particularly among blacks) that race and poverty must be an issue.”

    Where does poverty or inequality get a mention on either of those posts that are linked? It doesn’t. Just Blacks. That’s terrible framing, especially when the country with the second highest incarceration rate (Russia) has essentially no blacks, just high amounts of inequality and lots of poverty.

  • Richard Tsukamasa Green

    On an irrelevant note, did you notice Harry that when Greg Jericho compiled a list of political blogs, you were coded as Left Wing? It was interesting since I always coded you as centre right, only alienated because of your penchant for empirical reality (re. climate change, aggregate demand etc.).

  • rog

    A lot of the disparity in the US can be put down to the harshness of sentencing in different jurisdictions, on average whites in oklahoma get harsher penalties than in NYC. Another disparity is the high rate of blacks locked up for drug crimes despite drug usage being evenly distributed between black and white. One reason given was that blacks were pulled up more often and easier to catch.

  • hc

    Thanks Richard I registered a clarifying comment at that blogsite. I find it difficult to believe I am to the left of Troppo which is categorised as C.

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