Is the United States “Incarceration Nation”?

Kent discussed here the recently released BJS Report showing that the prison population in America declined again last year.  “Reform” advocates are likely to use the report as evidence that declining incarceration does not result in more crime.  As Kent explains, this is so much sleight of hand.  Part of the overall decrease in crime rates over the last decade stems from the trend in some large states to simply refuse to label more and more anti-social behavior (e.g., retail theft, small-time drug use) as crime, and part results from systemic delay, to wit (1) the delay between cause and effect, and (2) the delay between the commission of crime, its adjudication, its collection in crime statistics, and the statistics’ publication.

Still, it’s worthwhile looking at the BJS statistics themselves.  Even with their shortcomings, they tell a very different story from the one you’re going to hear from “reform” advocates.

First, let’s take a look at the big picture.  The BJS Report starts out:

The combined state and federal imprisonment rate for 2019 (419 per 100,000 U.S. residents), based on sentenced prisoners (those sentenced to more than one year), decreased 3% from 2018 (432 per 100,000 U.S. residents) (figure 1). This was the lowest imprisonment rate in 24 years, dating back to 1995.

When is the last time you heard a reform advocate tell you, amidst the thundering about how grossly and abnormally punitive the USA is, that we have the lowest incarceration rate in a generation (to wit, through the administrations of Presidents Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump)?

And when is the last time you heard a reform advocate tell you, amidst that same thundering about how America is “incarceration nation,” that 99.58% of the population is not incarcerated?  When less than one-half of one percent of your population is imprisoned, labeling your country “incarceration nation” is preposterous as well as insulting.

Here’s the next sentence in the Report:

Since 2009, the imprisonment rate—the portion of U.S. residents who are in prison—has dropped 17% overall, including 29%among black residents, 24% among Hispanic residents, and 12% among white residents.

When is the last time you heard a reform advocate tell you, amidst the thundering about how America is a racist cauldron with little if any moral or practical distance from the days of Jim Crow, that over the last decade, the substantial decrease in imprisonment has occurred at more than twice the level for blacks and Hispanics as it has for whites?

A leading reform advocate, Prof. Doug Berman, takes note of the BJS Report and, overall, is happy about it, but notes:

This news and the broader trends represented are good news for those who care about human liberty, though I am disinclined to celebrate too much given that the US incarceration remains the highest in the world…

Doug thus repeats a standard line among “reformers,” to wit, that the USA leads the world in incarceration and/or incarceration rates.  And that could be true  —  if one believes the incarceration statistics put out by China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, North Korea, and Cuba, etc., etc., but I doubt that Doug does or that any serious scholar does.  Yet I see the claim repeated again and again without any caution that it’s highly questionable, if not outright baloney.

2 Responses

  1. Douglas Berman says:

    Hey Bill, I would be very eager for you to help get better data concerning incarceration rates in counties like China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, North Korea, and Cuba. I suspect the high costs and relative economic inefficiency of locking young lots of men in cages for a long time does make it reasonably likely that the US actually is still a world leader here, but I would love to learn that we are not. Certainly, if reasonable positive trends continue (trends I believe you oppose), I do think we will not be the world’s top incarcerator all much longer. Critically, unlike seemingly many folks these days, my statements are based on the firm data we have, not fanciful “facts” I want to speculate would somehow prove a point I hope to be able to make but cannot make based on the firm data.

    Perhaps more to the point, none of the nations you list, to my knowledge, claim to be committed to human liberty the way the US claims to be. I am not impressed when told on any metric of freedom that the US is now not quite as bad as China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, North Korea, and Cuba. Our rate of incarceration is roughly three times that of Europe’s, which serves as an imperfect but informative basis for comparison. Would you share my view that we ought not be crowing about our progress and greatness as a free nation until we can at least get down to, say, double their incarceration?

  2. Douglas Berman says:

    Oh, I’d also love your take Bill on the recent criticism leveled at the US Justice Department’s excessive zealousness and excessive affinity for incarceration made by a notable commentator who said the following in a big speech last month:

    Individual prosecutors can sometimes become headhunters, consumed with taking down their target…. In recent years, the Justice Department has sometimes acted more like a trade association for federal prosecutors than the administrator of a fair system of justice based on clear and sensible legal rules. In case after case, [DOJ has] advanced and defended hyper-aggressive extensions of the criminal law. This is wrong and [DOJ] must stop doing it….

    The criminal law is supposed to be reserved for the most egregious misconduct — conduct so bad that our society has decided it requires serious punishment, up to and including being locked away in a cage…. [I]t is important for prosecutors at the Department of Justice to understand that their mission — above all others — is to do justice. That means following the letter of the law, and the spirit of fairness. Sometimes that will mean investing months or years in an investigation and then concluding it without criminal charges. Other times it will mean aggressively prosecuting a person through trial and then recommending a lenient sentence, perhaps even one with no incarceration.
    (Discussed here: