Friday, February 29, 2008

Prison America revisited ...

... because I hate it when Dana posts first on an issue that interests me.

OK, here's the deal: 1 out of 100 Americans incarcerated; 1 out of 15 African American male adults; and so on.

Grand total: 1.6 million in prison and another 723,000 in local jails.

Dana: It's a new record. In fact, it's a singular one that no nation, however despotic and cruel, emulates.... We actually have more adult citizens in jail than tyrannical, anti-democratic, communist China.

With all due respect, I disagree. Here's the international breakdown from The Straight Dope:

According to the International Centre for Prison Studies at King's College London, the U.S. currently has the largest documented prison population in the world, both in absolute and proportional terms. We've got roughly 2.03 million people behind bars, or 701 per 100,000 population. China has the second-largest number of prisoners (1.51 million, for a rate of 117 per 100,000), and Russia has the second-highest rate (606 per 100,000, for a total of 865,000). Russia had the highest rate for years, but has released hundreds of thousands of prisoners since 1998; meanwhile the U.S. prison population has grown by even more. Rounding out the top ten, with rates from 554 to 437, are Belarus, Bermuda (UK), Kazakhstan, the Virgin Islands (U.S.), the Cayman Islands (UK), Turkmenistan, Belize, and Suriname, which you'll have to agree puts America in interesting company. South Africa, a longtime star performer on the list, has dropped to 15th place (402) since the dismantling of apartheid.

Figures like these, especially with respect to China and Russia, should give rise to skepticism.

First, we have to recognize that prison statistics, like sexual histories, are pretty much the result of self-reporting. It is quite likely that the US figures are 99.9% accurate. It is almost a certainty that the figures from China and Russia are not. Are urban Chinese who have been sent to the countryside as agricultural laborers in re-education programs counted? What about the dissidents who merely disappear?

Just last night, with respect to Russia, MSNBC pointed out that under the Putin regime the old Soviet practice of using mental hospitals for incarcerating political dissidents has apparently resumed. Rumors persistently circulate that old internal exile arrangements and even work camps are being restarted.

Moreover, while we have excellent statistics about how many white, black, or latino prisoners there are in America, we have no comparable statistics for Russia or China. Wonder what would happen if we counted Falun Gong prisoners? Or Tibetans?

Moreover, let's note that in America anyone (or at least almost anyone) in prison has been through due process, has been provided with legal advice, and has a right to appeal in an open society (please don't bring up military commissions or Gitmo; that's a side issue); can the same be said of China or Russia? The answer is clearly no.

Yet there is still the political, moral, and economic issue that we have too many people in prison.

At least half of our prison population is composed of non-violent offenders (I'm not interested in hair-splitting over which are and are not violent crimes; for instances, I personally think child sexual abuse is a violent crime, but I'm not sure how it is formally classified).

As a Libertarian I would strongly advocate that society's chief policing interest is in protecting persons and property, as opposed to pursuing victimless crimes.

How many people would be affected by the decriminalization of drug use (NOT the decriminalizing of violent behaviors resulting from drug use)?

I was also listening to Michael Smerconish on WPHT this morning as he discussed this. He pointed out the former Philly City Councilman Rick Mariano is sitting behind Federal bars at Fort Dix because of his corruption conviction. Rick, a man in late middle age with a bad leg who was convicted of taking bribes and influence peddling is hardly a physical threat to society.

Likewise Martha Stewart.

It is a failure of imagination and political will that keeps us from finding alternative punishments that center on restitution rather than warehousing at tens of thousands of dollars per person per year.

There's a lot else that could be done, like correcting the sentence differentials between crack and powdered cocaine, but my point is this:

1) Let's make sure that while we're hanging our heads in international shame that we're actually comparing apples to apples, and not apples to toaster ovens.

2) Let's start a serious national conversation about decriminalizing victimless crimes.

3) Ditto for creative alternatives for non-violent offenders ("Son, you can go to prison, the Marine Corps, or the Peace Corps").

And for the record, Dana, I do believe that

there is no socio-political correlation between the US holding the world record in incarcerating citizens and its leader acting uppity and righteous about the government's "right" to spy on private conversations anytime it wishes

because these trends have long pre-existed the current administration (and statistical treatments admit that we jumped past Russia toward the end of the 1990s not because anything changed here, but because the Russians abruptly discharged tens of thousands of political prisoners).

I'll agree that Dubya hasn't been a positive influence on the problem, but that doesn't let anybody else (including all those Democrats who voted for three-strikes and mandatory sentencing provisions) off the hook.


Dana Garrett & Stephen Crockett said...


I'm not sure what the basis can be for saying the US cannot be # 1 on the assumption that the figures for despotic regimes are more likely to be inaccurate.

If nations like China were inclined to undercount their nations, why would they give a false figure that would leave them at #2? That's hardly a badge of honor.

Wouldn't it be better propaganda to report figures that would rank them #5 in the world?

Also, perhaps it is precisely because they are more inclined to toss people in prison for slight and political infractions that they get less "criminal" behavior from their populace.

Many records we accept as established are subject to the possibility of error based on the ever present possibility indeterminate and unknown data, but that represents no barrier to us establishing the record based on the data we have available.

If we say that John Doe is oldest living human in world at age 109, it is of course possible that in some village in Brazil someone is age 112. But we are not on that basis wrong to say John Doe is the oldest person in the world simply because Brazil is lousy at maintaining birth records.

Dana Garrett & Stephen Crockett said...

"to undercount their nations"

"nations" should be "numbers"

Bowly said...

I agree that China probably doesn't fudge its numbers to get a lower ranking. It is proud of its toughness on crime. For example, China executed someone for taking bribes and made the knowledge open.

No, China's numbers are low because it kills people. It is also possible that re-education is not counted.

tom said...

Moreover, let's note that in America anyone (or at least almost anyone) in prison has been through due process, has been provided with legal advice ...

This is not entirely true.

A substantial percentage of our prison population is being held in "pre-trial detention" and statistics on them are not accurately reported or not reported at all in many jurisdictions. many of these prisoners spend the maximum possible prison term for their charge(s) or more awaiting trial and are then sentenced to "time served" and released. In many jurisdictions, if bail has been set, no matter how unreasonable, the court will not even consider habeas motions from pre-trial detainees until they have been held for the minimum prison term for the crimes they are charged with. They call this "Habeas corpus reform", and enacted these laws and regulations to prevent prisoners from clogging the legal system with "frivolous" motions.

There is also the question of whether or not a few minutes with a public defender, paid by the state, who almost inevitably advises suspects to plea bargain actually counts as "legal advice".

For many prisoners there is a large gap between what they have a right to and what they can actually afford.