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.