Friday, January 11, 2013

Why Are So Many US Citizens in US Prisons?


David said...

Here's the problem I have with this argument. I agree that we incarcerate too many people and that prisons are often horrible places. We also incarcerate too many drug offenders. (I'm also very amenable to considering the radical decriminalizing of most or all drugs.)

The problem with this argument is that even if you remove the 20 percent of allegedly non-violent drug offenders (hint: they are not all non-violent and many have multiple previous violent offenses) then the US still incarcerates more people and more people per capita than other developed countries. So, yes, we should scale back the war on drugs, but no, this isn't the reason why so many people are in prison. My guess is that we incarcerate so many because we now govern politically through crime (Simon).

One could respond that violent offenses increase because of the war on crime so the drug war is the reason we incarcerate so many. However, there is hardly a consensus in the empirical literature (Emily Owens 2011)and there are clearly multiple arrows of causality. It would have to be merely hand waving at this point to make that argument.


Anonymous said...

My understanding is that the main reason the US has such a high prison population is not that we imprison more people per capita than other countries, but that we sentence them to longer terms.

David said...

John Pfaff (2011, ALER) writes that

"time served has not risen dramatically in recent years, even declining in some jurisdictions.
It also shows that time served is fairly short: median release times are approximately one to two years. Thus, admissions practices, not longer sentences, appear to drive prison growth."

sourcreamus said...

This leaves out the most obvious reason for the increase in prison population, the increase in crime. From about 1963 to 1993 the crime rate in America tripled. This is true for almost every category of crime, not just drug use. In response, sentences got longer, and police got more aggressive. The percentage of drug offenses in prison population has not changed since 1980.
As has been already pointed out US incarceration rates would be amoung the highest in the world with no drug offenses included. Also the US crime rates have dropped significantly since the early 1990's while Europe's crime rate has taken off during that same time.