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United States has the highest rate of confinement of prisoners per 100,000 population than any other Western country. Analyze this phenomena and discuss actions that you feel are necessary to combat this problem.
The United States currently has the highest incarceration rate of any nation worldwide. For example, greater than 60% of nations have incarceration rates below 150 per 100,000 people (Walmsley, 2003). The United States makes up just about five percent of the world's population and yet it houses 25% of the world's prison population (Walmsley, 2009). In 2008 there were more than 2.3 million people held in United States prisons and jails, a rate of approximately 754 inmates per 100,000 people (Sabol, West, & Cooper, 2009). So if we only count adults in the population that translates into a one in 100 American adults is locked up. Russia is the only other major industrialized nation that comes close with 627 prisoners for every 100,000 people. Other countries have much lower incarceration rates. For instance England's rate is 151/100,000; Germany's rate is 88/100, 000; and Japan's rate is 63/100,000 people. The median rate of incarceration among all nations is about 125/100, 000 people which is about a sixth of the American incarceration rate (Sabol, West, & Cooper, 2009).
However, this was not always the case. Before the 1970s, the United States had an incarceration rate that had been in the range of 100 inmates per 100,000 people for decades. Thus, the current incarceration rate represents a significant increase in the use of imprisonment in the United States starting in the decade of the 1970s.
Even though incarceration rate in the United States is the highest in the world there has been a decline in the rate over the last several years. For instance, from the years between 2000 to 2008 (even though the all-time high incarceration rate was in 2008) the growth of the prison population in the United States was less than a third of the rate during the 1990s (1.8% compared to 6.5% per year; Sabol, West, & Cooper, 2009). There are probably several reasons for the recent decrease the rate of incarcerations including a decline in both violent and property crime rates and the economic state of the nation. Also when states face a financial crisis they can cut costs by reducing the number of people incarcerated and opt on early release programs. Nonetheless, the high number of incarcerations in the United States remains a serious issue.
There are several social, political, economic, and cultural factors particular to the United States that have been used to explain the high rates of incarceration. Some of these factors, such as relatively lower financial spending devoted to social welfare programs than other countries may play a factor in the higher rates of incarceration; however, it appears that the most explanatory feature of the incarceration rates is the considerably greater reliance on incarceration's use as a sanction in the United States relative to other countries.
For example, the crime rate in a country is a factor that is most commonly believed to be related to numbers of incarcerations, and this makes sense on the surface. Many suggest that the incarceration rate in the United States is high because it has higher crime rates relative to other countries. However, crime statistic comparisons between different countries are difficult to conduct because the definition of crimes that are worthy of incarceration can vary between countries. Overall the total crime rate of the United States is similar to that of other highly developed countries with the exception being homicide rates which are substantially higher. Violent crime rates in the United States are high relative to other nations but they do not appear to be exceptionally high. Robberies in countries like England and Australia are reported to be higher in some surveys than corresponding rates in the United States (Gideon, 2011). The United States has relatively less nonviolent crime than countries like Canada and England. It does not follow then, that homicide rates alone are responsible for the exceptionally high incarceration rates in the United States because homicide is a relatively rare crime and Finland also has a relatively high homicide rate compared to other countries but also has a low incarceration rate compared to other nations (Guetzkow & Western, 2007).
Related to the above, victimization data is another method that can be used to assess whether the United States has more crime than other countries. The International Crime Victimization Survey (Van Dijk, van Kesteren, & Smit, 2008) indicates that overall crime is more common in England, Wales, and the Netherlands than it is in the United States. Moreover, victimization rates in the United States are very similar to those in Canada; however, the incarceration rate in the United States is five to six times greater than it is in Canada. Therefore based on official crime rats and victimization data it does not appear that the United States is greatly different from other nations with significantly smaller rates of incarceration. It does not appear that the overall crime rate in the United States can satisfactorily explain the high incarceration rate.
It was mentioned earlier that perhaps the United States does not spend or engages in less spending on social welfare programs and this leads to greater income inequality in the United States. Perhaps these factors might contribute to higher incarceration rates in the United States. According to data reported by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD, 2008) two nations that spend generously on social welfare programs and have fair levels of overall income equality, Germany and Finland, also have the low incarceration rates. It would likewise be reasonable to believe that higher levels of unemployment would contribute to higher incarceration rates; however the data indicate that Finland and Germany had significantly higher unemployment rates, whereas the United States had relatively low rates of unemployment among democracies. Moreover, looking at areas like the amount of money spent on public education (where the United States is higher than other nations) and the differences in spending on social programs it becomes clear that the United States does not differ so significantly from most other nations to justify the large discrepancy in incarceration rates.
Many have reported that race is an important factor in the American incarceration prison rate. For example, African-Americans are much more likely to be imprisoned than other ethnic groups in the United States, but this does not represent a distinctive phenomenon of United States prison demographics. It is also known that minorities in Canada, Britain and Australia are disproportionately represented in prisons and the ratios are similar to or larger than those in the United States (Western, 2007).
Blumstein and Beck (1999) recognizing the substantial increase in the incarceration rate in the United States found that the vast majority of the incarceration rate increase in the United States was attributed to changes in sentencing and correctional policies (88%) rather than an increase in crime, economic conditions, or other reasons. While the incarceration rate in the United States experienced significant growth from 1987 to 2007 (a 114% increase in incarceration rates) other countries such as England (61%) and Australia (73%) also increased incarceration rates during this period at a slower pace. In contrast, some nations demonstrated stable levels of incarceration (e.g., Germany only a three percent increase), whereas others saw their incarceration rates decline (e.g., Finland's rate decreased by 19% during the same period; International
Center for Prison Studies, 2008). The difference in incarceration rates is attributable to policy differences between the United States and other countries over this period.
The United States has a significantly higher incarceration rate than other countries because of its reliance on incarceration as a sanction compared to other alternatives. According to the United Nations Survey on Crime Trends and the Operations of Criminal Justice Systems this reliance on incarceration is a the contributing factor to the discrepancy between the United States and other nations (Aromaa & Heiskanen, 2008). The data indicates that imprisonment is the most commonly used sanction in the United States over the years 1995-2004, whereas most other countries, particularly other Western democracies, primarily use fines as a form of punishment.
A general principle of the penal policies in many of these other nations is that imprisonment should be avoided as far as possible, used only as a last resort, and sentence lengths should be as short as possible. Since the 1970s greater than half of all sentences in countries like Finland and Germany consisted of fines as an opposed to imprisonment (Walmasley, 2003). In Scotland 60% of convicted defendants received a fine, while 13% received a custodial sentence (Scottish Executive, 2007). According to the Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics (2008) English courts do not appear to rely as heavily on fines as do other countries. For instance, in England in 2006 only 17% of those convicted of a crime received fines; however, the percentage of those convicted receiving a prison term was relatively…[continue]
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