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1. The effect of incarceration rates on crime
2. Number of people incarcerated
3. Prison occupancy
4. The US
5. Race and incarceration in the US and the UK
6. Crime rates
7. The social effects of incarceration
8. Social class and incarceration in the US
The human rights issues created by incarceration are evident, I think: locking people up means taking away a number if not most of their liberties, most obviously their freedom of movement, freedom to work and political freedom in some cases, as well as their physical security and privacy. Other rights violations have to do with the kind of people who are locked up and the often substandard conditions in which many prisoners are kept, even in rich countries such as the U.S.:
- Children are often incarcerated
- Federal prisons in the U.S. hold 60% more prisoners than they were designed for
- Prisoners often have to perform forced and/or unpaid labor
- Prison rape is common
- Incarceration reduces former inmates’ earnings by 40 percent when compared to demographically similar counterparts who have not been imprisoned
- Children of inmates suffer from the absence of a parent
- Incarceration rates often betray racism in criminal justice
Some people clearly deserve to be put in jail, and often that is what is required and necessary in order to protect the human rights of their (possible) victims. There’s also a deterrent effect: one study has shown that a 10 percent increase in incarceration is associated with two to four percent drop in crime. In the U.S at least, there’s a correlation between soaring incarceration rates (see below) and spectacular drops in crime rates. However, other data point to little or no effect of mass incarceration on crime:
America continues to lock up a scandalously large number of its people: around 1% of the adult population is behind bars at any time. But … “the relationship between the incarceration rate and the violent-crime rate is not very strong.” New York has not followed the national mania for imprisonment, and yet the decline in its crime has been among the most impressive. (source)
There are also other explanations – beside incarceration rates – for drops in crime rates. See here for a telling example.
In any case, even if there is a deterrent effect of incarceration, the incarceration rates in many countries – and more specifically in the US - go beyond what is required for public safety and the rights of victims. The undeniable harm that it does cannot justify the uncertain benefits.
This map shows the number of people per 100.000 citizens who are incarcerated:
And this graph shows the under- or over-use of prisons (prison occupancy, or the number of prisoners compared to the number of places in prisons – over 100% indicates overpopulation in prisons, and hence bad prison conditions):
In the U.S., the occupancy rate is 106%: there are 2.16 million places in U.S. prisons, and 2.27 million prisoners. (See below).
As you can see from country comparisons, the U.S. leads the world, both in absolute and in relative (per capita) terms.
The U.S. imprisons more people than any other country on earth: it has the highest fraction of population in prison, 0.7% vs a world median of roughly 0.1%, and it has the highest number of people in prison – more than 2 million (if you include local jail, state and federal prison populations). With 5 percent of the world population, the U.S. hosts upward of 20 percent of the world’s prisoners. 1 out of every 100 American adults is in prison. 10% of prisoners serve a life sentence. Another 10% are doing more than 20 years. 10% of prisoners are housed in private facilities.
This is a relatively recent phenomenon. In 1980, there were about 220 people incarcerated for every 100.000 Americans; by 2010, the number had more than tripled, to 731. No other country even approaches that. Comparable European figures include 153 for England, 96 for France, 92 for Italy, 66 for Denmark and 90 for Germany. The U.S. incarceration rate has roughly quintupled since the early 1970s. States like California now spend more on locking people up than on funding higher education.
If you add those on probation (convicted offenders not incarcerated) or on parole (under community supervision after a period of incarceration) to the incarceration totals, then it’s not 2 million but over 7 million adults who are under correctional supervision in the U.S. That’s 1 in every 50 Americans.
Only very recently has the trend changed:
The rising numbers for the last decades can’t be explained by an increase in total population:
Over the past forty years the number of incarcerated people has increased 350 percent while population increased 33 percent. “Tough on crime” policies such as “three strikes you’re out” laws, combined with the war on drugs are the reasons behind the numbers.
“Tough on crime” policies mean harsher sentences. Since 1990, the average length of prison sentences in the U.S. has increased by 36 percent. Long sentences for non-violent first offenses, coupled with laws mandating increased penalties for repeat offenders, mean that prisons are more crowded than ever.
Like many things in the US, the regional distribution shows large differences:
One can question “tough on crime” policies on the basis of the rights of inmates, but also in light of their results: compared to other developed countries (see point 2 above), the US has a very high incarceration rate and yet its crime rate isn’t consistently lower (it’s even higher than similar countries for murder and a few other crimes). It’s true that crime rates have come down a lot over the past decades, at least for most types of crime.
Incarceration is part of the explanation. A study has shown that a 10 percent increase in incarceration is associated with two to four percent drop in crime. However, the deterrent effect is not undisputed and other factors have also driven the downward trend (cultural changes, better policing, a reduction in lead-intake etc.). See above.
Interesting fact: in the U.S., men are incarcerated at a rate 14 times higher than women.
The racial distribution of inmates in the U.S. is highly unfavorable for black Americans. Whereas they only make up 12% or so of the total U.S. population, they represent more than 40% of inmates:
U.S. population by race:
U.S. inmates by race:
Almost 5 out of every 100 male African-Americans are in jail, a rate more than five times that of white Americans.
Among men born between 1965 and 1969, 3 percent of whites and 20 percent of blacks had served time in prison by their early thirties. Among black men born during this period, 30 percent of those without college education and nearly 60 percent of high school dropouts went to prison by 1999 (source).
Incarceration rates in the United States have risen sharply since 1980, but especially for young black men. More than one in three young black men without a high school diploma is currently behind bars. Young black men who dropped out of high school are more likely to be incarcerated than employed. More than half of all black men without a high-school diploma go to prison at some time in their lives.
Racial bias is also a problem in the U.K.:
And just to show that it can even be worse: US black men are imprisoned at 6.4 times the rate of white men, but in Australia, the incarceration rate for Aboriginal men is about 18 times the national average.
Prison population statistics do not always compare directly to crime rate statistics. National authorities can be more or less effective or prejudiced in the prosecution of crime, and this is reflected in prison population statistics. A low percentage of the population that is incarcerated doesn’t imply a low crime rate. It can just as well imply ineffective prosecution. Conversely, low crime rates that correlate with high incarceration rates don’t necessarily imply effective law enforcement: many people in prison can be there for victimless “crimes” such as drug use, or low crimes rates can have other causes besides high incarceration rates. Hence, pointing to low crimes rates may not be a good justification of high incarceration rates.
Regarding crime rate statistics, there are some misunderstandings about so-called “immigrant crime”, especially in the U.S.:
[T]he effects of [the] change in the imprisonment rate [in the U.S.] … have been concentrated among those most likely to form fragile families: poor and minority men with little schooling. Imprisonment diminishes the earnings of adult men, compromises their health, reduces familial resources, and contributes to family breakup. It also adds to the deficits of poor children, thus ensuring that the effects of imprisonment on inequality are transferred intergenerationally. … Because having a parent go to prison is now so common for poor, minority children and so negatively affects them, the authors argue that mass imprisonment may increase future racial and class inequality — and may even lead to more crime in the long term, thereby undoing any benefits of the prison boom. U.S. crime policy has thus, in the name of public safety, produced more vulnerable families and reduced the life chances of their children. (source, source)
This is an example of a self-defeating human rights policy: in an attempt to improve the protection of security rights and property rights of a population, a policy of increased incarceration rates has an adverse effect on the rights of the incarcerated, their families and children, and possibly even society at large (as increased inequality resulting from high incarceration rates among society’s most vulnerable groups will perhaps lead to more crime – although we can’t assume that increasing poverty and inequality will automatically provoke those who are impoverished because of incarceration to resort to crime).
In the U.S., 24% of black children will have had a parent behind bars by age 17, an eightfold increase since 1980.
Incarceration also has an effect on infant mortality:
This article estimates the effects of imprisonment on infant mortality using data from the United States, 1990-2003. Results using state-level data show consistent effects of imprisonment rates on infant mortality rates and absolute black-white inequality in infant mortality rates. Estimates suggest that had the American imprisonment rate remained at the 1973 level—the year generally considered the beginning of the prison boom—the 2003 infant mortality rate would have been 7.8% lower, absolute black-white inequality in the infant mortality rate 14.8% lower. Results using micro-level data from the Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System (PRAMS) show that recent parental incarceration elevates early infant mortality risk, that effects are concentrated in the postneonatal period, and that partner violence moderates these relationships. Importantly, results suggest that recent parental incarceration elevates the risk of early infant death by 29.6% for the average infant in the sample. Taken together, results show that imprisonment may have consequences for population health and inequality in population health and should be considered when assessing variation in health across nations, states, neighborhoods, and individuals. (source)
In the U.S. in 2004:
- 28% of state and federal prisoners were unemployed in the month before their arrest. The national unemployment rate at the time was 5.5%. So the inmate rate was six times the national average.
- 88% of state prisoners and 80% of federal prisoners had a high school education or less. The national average for adults (over 18 years of age) was half that – 48%. Inmates are twice the national average.
- 70% of state and 58% of federal prisoners had an income of less than $2000 in the month prior to arrest. That means they had an annual income of less than $24000. Median personal income in 2004 was about $34,000. So about 2/3 of prisoners had incomes that were at least 1/3 below the median. By any reasonable measure (though not by unreasonable official measures) that is real poverty for households, and just scraping by for an individual. (source)
The criminal justice system in the U.S doesn’t only target people of color, but also poor people. Not surprising perhaps given the substantial overlap between these two groups.