The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Yes, U.S. locks people up at a higher rate than any other country

(Dave Martin/AP)

“It’s a stark fact that the United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, yet we have almost 25 percent of the world’s total prison population. The numbers today are much higher than they were 30, 40 years ago despite the fact that crime is at historic lows.”

–Hillary Rodham Clinton (D), speech on criminal justice at Columbia University, April 29, 2015 

“Though only 5 percent of the world’s population lives in the United States, it is home to 25 percent of the world’s prison population. … Not only does the current overpopulated, underfunded system hurt those incarcerated, it also digs deeper into the pockets of taxpaying Americans.”  

–Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), news release on Web site, March 9, 2015 

This was a seemingly unbelievable figure that turned out to be correct. The widely cited statistic about the United States’ share of prisoners compared to other countries recently earned the rare Geppetto Checkmark by The Fact Checker.

A more reliable way to compare incarceration practices between countries is the prison population rate. Even by that measure, the United States had the highest prison population rate in the world, at 716 per 100,000 people. More than half the 222 countries and territories in the World Prison Population List, by the U.K.-based International Center for Prison Studies, had rates below 150 per 100,000.

After the fact check published, a colleague challenged The Fact Checker with an interesting question: How does the United States’ incarceration rate compare to countries with similarly structured criminal justice systems? After all, the world prisoners list does not include any other indicators than prisoner populations. It took some digging but we finally found an answer.

The Facts

The 2015 World Justice project Rule of Law index was published in June 2015, ranking 102 countries based on a host of indicators, including criminal justice. The criminal justice factor measures impartiality, due process and rights of the accused, and effectiveness of the countries’ criminal investigation, adjudication and correction systems. The United States ranked 23rd out of 102 countries, 16th among 24 regional peers, and 23 among 31 income peers.

But there is not a quantitative measure of how the United States ranks in incarceration rates compared to countries with comparable criminal justice systems or other indicators not measured in the Rule of Law index, such as penal policies, prison conditions, and use of fines and other sanctions.

Several experts suggested we instead compare U.S. incarceration rates to those in the annual Council of Europe Annual Penal Statistics data for 47 member countries and other major economies for what one academic called an “oranges to 97-percent-oranges comparison.”  The council’s 2013 report shows that the median European prison population rate was 133.5 inmates per 100,000 people. In the United States, the rate was 478 per 100,000 — three and half times the European rate. The United States also far exceeded Canada (188 per 100,000), Australia (130 per 100,000), New Zealand (192 per 100,000) and Japan (51 per 100,000).

Tapio Lappi-Seppälä, director of the Institute of Criminology and Legal Policy at the University of Helsinki, is one of the leading researchers on prison populations and crime trends around the world. He recently presented this topic to the Justice Department, showing long-term prisoner reduction in Finland, cross-comparative crime and prison trends (which show crime and prison rates are not necessarily correlated) and how U.S. rates compare to other countries.

The incarceration rate in the United States is an outlier in other ways, Lappi-Seppälä’s research shows. For example:

General victimization rates in the United States ranked about the same as countries in Western Europe (using victimization rates reported through the International Crime Victims Survey) but the U.S. incarceration rate was still much higher.

The United States ranked on the low end among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries in social service expenditures as a percentage of the GDP in 2002-2007, but its incarceration was the highest among similarly-ranked countries.

The United States ranked about midpoint in logged homicide rates in 2004 to 2012 compared to more than 100 countries, but still had the highest logged incarceration rate in 2010 to 2013. (Other research also shows the United States ranks higher in homicide rates compared to OECD countries, but does not have as high rates in lesser crimes. The United States has higher homicide rates than other economically developed countries, and is also an outlier for armed robbery.)

On the public punitive attitude scale, which uses standardized questions to measure public demand for punishment, the United States ranked the highest out of nearly 30 countries, mostly in Europe.

Comparative research on punishment is burgeoning, but there are key theories as to why the United States is such an outlier. (There literally are books about this, so we will cover some of the main points.)

Crime spiked in the 1960s and through the 1970s. This was not unique to the United States at that time, but what did stand out was how the United States responded: It got tough on crime.

A series of “get tough” policies were enacted in the 1980s and into the 1990s, such as truth in sentencing laws, mandatory minimums, mandatory drug sentences, life sentence without possibility of parole, and the three-strikes law. (Britain also got tough on crime during this time, but not nearly to the levels that the United States did.)

“What sets the American pattern so clearly apart from the rest of developed nations is a byproduct of the generation after 1972,” said Franklin Zimring, a University of California at Berkeley law professor and director of criminal justice research program at Earl Warren Legal Institute.

The American public became worried when crime rates soared; the crime problem was among top voter concerns through the 1970s. The lack of political consensus on what was causing the increase in violent crime and what to do about it increased public concern, according to “The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences.”

The “get tough” policies became politically popular. The key players in the country’s legal system are elected positions in various levels of government (including local sheriffs, elected prosecutors, parole boards, executive clemency and pardoning authority, legislators voting on crime laws, etc.), which makes the U.S. criminal justice system more politicized and more responsive to popular opinion, experts said. The United States also functions as 51 separate countries, because so many of the criminal justice decisions are made at the local and state levels.

The network of social service programs is less developed in the United States than in comparable countries. That means the United States relies more on jails and prisons for people who otherwise would have been diverted to non-institutionalized care (i.e., people with mental health or substance abuse issues, the homeless, the youth). Community-based alternatives are being developed on a local and state level, but there is not a national network that can support a systemic move away from incarceration.

“The underdevelopment of government institutions [penal, policing, welfare or social] has meant that the default, reflex response to crime is simply to lock people up,” said David Garland, a New York University law and sociology professor whose research focuses on comparative punishment practices.

There also are many theories about the impact of social factors that are unique to the United States, and how poverty, race and income inequality have interacted with incarceration rates. In recent years, reentry advocates have highlighted state decisions to impose criminal justice fees, such as fines for failing to appear in court, lab processing fees for drug tests or surcharge if inmates are housed in private prisons. Such fees are unique to the United States and also contribute to reincarceration, experts said.

The Bottom Line

Even when adjusting for other factors, such as crime victimization, social service spending and economic development, the United States incarcerates people at a higher rate than other countries.

The crime rate has been decreasing steadily in recent years but the incarceration rate has not dropped at the same rate. But those trends are beginning to change. People who were incarcerated in the late 1970s during the spike in crimes and received mandatory decades-long sentences are now being released. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2009 was the first year in 31 years when prison releases exceeded admissions.

U.S. criminal justice trends are internationally unique – and this talking point is supported by numerous measures.

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