Nice to get some hard facts to back up what I’ve heard: the USA really does have a huge proportion of its population in prison. It’s the world leader in prison population measured by BOTH total number OR percentage. Yes, that’s a larger total than even China or India (despite their much larger total population), and a higher percentage than (insert nasty country’s name here). The figure is that now 1 in 100 adults are in prison, and for example 1 in 9 African Americans aged between 20 and 34.
1 in 9?!? No wonder one sees persistent income differences between groups in America — not to mention differences in proportions of single-parent households. Of course, it’s hard to tell how much is intrinsic legal system bias versus other factors, and for other factors whether they are cause or effect. It does also illustrate an anecdote my friend Jeff (a US citizen) was telling from his recent jury callup, where he noted that the African American potential jurors had a universally very negative opinion of the police and legal system. Which in turn, of course, makes fighting crime in African American areas all that much harder — something South Africa has to deal with too, due to the association of the police with the old Apartheid regime.
But taking a step back: apparently some of the reason for the overall high rates are very strict sentencing guidelines for judges — such as “three strikes” rules requiring prison time after three offences. In any event, the US is not particularly safer than comparable countries with much lower prison rates — partially, one would imagine, because sending a petty thief to prison is great for producing a not-as-petty thief, via gang membership and the negative effect that a prison record has on gaining any other source of income. Not to mention that an overcrowded system isn’t likely to do a great job at rehabilitation.