Any Explanations for Incarceration Statistics Outliers?

Via Doug Berman and Patrick S. O’Donnell, here are some provocative facts about prisons in the U.S.:

The US incarcerates the largest number of people in the world.

The incarceration rate in the US is four times the world average.

Some individual US states imprison up to six times as many people as do nations of comparable population.

The US has less than 5% of the world’s population but over 23% of the world’s incarcerated people.

The NPR program “Justice Talking” recently featured some excellent discussions of the role of the private sector in the US prison system. Critics of privatization included former prisoner Alex Friedmann (who is the vice president of the Private Corrections Institute) and Liane “Buffie” McFadyen, a State Representative from Colorado. Friedmann claimed that cost-cutting at private prisons put prisoners and public safety at risk (by, for example, leading to high turnover of guards). McFadden argued that private prisons “skimmed the cream” by serving only the healthy and “easy” prisoners, and dumping back to the state any mentally ill, violent, or otherwise costly-to-incarcerate offenders. Currently the mix of public and private prisoners is about 95/5, with only a small minority of offenders in private prisons.

As political debate on figures like the ones above heats up, we should pay attention to the role that private firms play in supporting or opposing certain reactions. As usual, Doug Berman is on top of the economics of prison reform. Though Sasha Volokh doubts that prison privatization leads to longer sentences, the US’s outlier status should lead to renewed scrutiny of exactly whose interests it serves. If it happens that the real driver is fear-mongering politicians or rural areas “importing constituents,” well, that’s one more strike against politics. And if it happens that the US really is objectively far more violent and depraved than other nations, we may well have to question the Pollyannas churning out apologias for a culture of violence and economic policies that lead to such widespread hopelessness and feelings of aggrieved humiliation.

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