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.