Why the US incarceration rate is so high.

21 February 2016 1:03 pm

America has one of the highest imprisonment rates in the world. America has around 5 per cent of the world’s population, and 25 per cent of its prisoners

The natural rate of incarceration for countries comparable to the United States tends to stay around 100 prisoners per 100,000 population. In the US, the rate is 500 prisoners per 100,000 residents, or about 1.6 million prisoners in 2010, according to the latest available data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

One of the frequently cited reasons is the ferocity of US drug law enforcement. In response to the crack epidemic of the 1980s, Congress and state legislatures began passing laws that meted out mandatory-minimum sentences for drug-related crimes. These were intended to help nab major traffickers, but the sentences were triggered by the possession of tiny quantities of drugs: five grams of crack, for instance, resulted in a mandatory-minimum sentence of five years.

Fifty per cent (95,800) of sentenced inmates in US prisons on September 30, 2014 (the most recent date for which federal offense data are available) were serving time for drug offenses.

Southern European Countries that decriminalized all drug possession – particularly Portugal - are believed by many people to offer an alternative policy approach that would result in prison being reserved mainly for offenders serving time for armed robbery, rape, homicide and other serious non-drug-related crimes

But analysis of international prison data by Carnegie Mellon University Professor Jonathan Caulkins and University of Maryland Professor Peter Reuter suggests the story is more complicated.

The United States and Portugal have virtually identical proportions of drug offenders among their prisoners. And in Spain and Italy, which also decriminalized all drug possession, drug offenders are a substantially higher proportion of the prison population than in the US.

The US thus stands out internationally for having a huge prison population but not for being particularly prone to incarcerate drug offenders. This remarkable situation results from factors that make the US unique.

First, the US is a shockingly violent country by international standards. Over the past century, the US homicide rate has consistently been many times that of Western Europe.

John Pfaff, a professor at Fordham Law School says there has also been a distinctive increase in property and violent crime in the US. From 1960 to 1991, violent crime rose by 400 percent, and property crime rose by 200 per cent.

And finally the other big driver is what has to be called the prison industrial complex.

It’s a system that sees prisoners leased to private companies for mandatory labour. They are banned from unionizing, violently silenced from speaking out and forced to work for little to no wages. About 17 cents an hour

As reported here, at least 37 states have legalized the contracting of prison labour by private corporations that mount their operations inside state prisons. The list of such companies contains the cream of US corporate society: IBM, Boeing, Motorola, Microsoft, AT&T, Wireless, Texas Instrument, Dell, Compaq, Honeywell, Hewlett-Packard, Nortel, Lucent Technologies, 3Com, Intel, Northern Telecom, TWA, Nordstrom’s, Revlon, Macy’s, Pierre Cardin, Target Stores, and many more. They’re making big profits off that cheap labour.

In the US, incarceration rates are high because it’s a big business.