American Exceptionalism

I encourage you to read this article on mass incarceration in the United States at City Journal by Rafael A. Mangual. Here’s a snippet:

Because so few American prisoners are serving time for trivial infractions, aligning America’s incarceration numbers with those of, say, England or Germany would require releasing many very serious and frequently violent offenders. Yet many in the decarceration camp have been calling for just such a mass release. The #cut50 initiative, founded by activist and CNN host Van Jones, aims to halve the prison population. Scholars at the Brennan Center have called for an immediate 40 percent reduction in the number of inmates.

Check out the eye-catching infographic, “World Incarceration Rates”. We can’t accomplish Van Jones’s 50% reduction in the prison population without releasing violent serial offenders. The idea that goal can be accomplished by not putting people in jail for drug offenses is a fiction.

As I have noted before comparisons with highly cohesive countries like Germany betrays a misunderstanding of the United States. We are better compared with Mexico or Brazil than we are Germany. We are a rougher, more violent, less law-abiding country than Germany and we have violent crime statistics to match.

11 comments… add one
  • PD Shaw Link

    Illinois has cut the prison population by about 20% over the last five years. I think that has been bi-partisan, and has been happening at both the state and local levels. It’s included outsourcing to for-profits diversion services. I suspect the main reason is the state is broke, so nobody wants to pay for criminals, including paying for drug rehabilitation, mental health screenings or job-training programs that get triggered by the criminal justice system.

    IIRC, during the drug legalization discussion, it was revealed that the number of drug possession felons in Illinois jails was something like 44. Can’t find it, but just googling I see other states have been reducing incarcerations the last few years.

  • I have no objection to reduced sentences or no prison time at all for simple possession. Unfortunately, contrary to what many seem to believe, you cannot achieve a 50% reduction in the prison population that way.

    Something frequently ignored in the discussion of incarceration is plea bargaining which is extremely commonplace. It seems to me possible that eliminating prison terms for possession could, paradoxically, result in more severe sentences due to mandatory sentencing and reduced availability of lower offenses that nonetheless still carried prison time.

    There may be other unforeseen secondary effects of reduced sentences. For example, I know that in some states there are services available to parolees that would be unavailable without having served jail time. Said another way, it is likely that “reduced sentences” is far too simple a statement of what needs to be done.

  • bob sykes Link

    How can we talk about incarceration rates while ignoring our large black and Hispanic populations. Without them, are crime rates are about the same as Germany’s. Actually, considering the large influx of Africans and Muslims into Germany, our crime rates might actually be lower.

    Genes matter.

  • Guarneri Link

    Thank you for pointing out the fallacy of minor drug possession overcrowding the jails. I was unaware.

  • Actually, our white-only incarceration rate is higher than Germany’s incarceration rate previous to the large influx of Middle Eastern and North African people. We have no idea what France’s crime rate by race or national origin because the French are prohibited by law from keeping such statistics.

    The incarceration rate across the Middle East is about the same as the UK’s. Although there are such things as differences in cultures, a genetic predisposition to crime is an extreme rarity. Other factors (economic, social, etc.) are much better predictors.

    Here in the U. S. the rate of rural white crime and rural black crime is about the same. There is an enormous difference between the rate of urban white crime and urban black crime. That does not point to a genetic cause. The difference is almost entirely gang-related.

  • PD Shaw Link

    I noticed the graph showing a proposed reduction in U.S. incarceration rates would appear to eliminate white collar crimes, and DUIs. I’d be curious to see the political will for that.

    I’m of the view that America has always had much higher rates of violence, and drug and alcohol abuse, going back to before the Civil War.

  • Yeah, me too, PD.

  • James P Kirby Link

    The prison population could be reduced by reducing the time required to be served in sentencing guidelines. As far a I know, civilized countries of Europe and elsewhere limit incarceration to 15 years maximum.

  • Grey Shambler Link

    It’s a shame the founders felt they had no need to expand on “cruel or unusual”. I imagine they meant whipping or the stocks. I’d like to see much shorter and much more uncomfortable sentences for first time offenders. We see bread and water and no mattress or pillow as cruel.
    We also see decades of confinement and forced sodomy as not too cruel for the constitutional test.

  • Neither whipping nor the stocks was deemed cruel or unusual at the time of the signing of the Constitution. What they meant to forbid were things like lopping of limbs, torture, crucifixion, and the like. In the past courts have held punishments like disenfranchisement for dueling, whipping for illegal gambling, and banishment for larceny acceptable because they were acceptable under the British common law.

    However, the courts have also held that there are “evolving standards of decency” which means that in this enlightened age there are things that are not acceptable which were perfectly acceptable in 1790.

  • steve Link

    “I’m of the view that America has always had much higher rates of violence, and drug and alcohol abuse, going back to before the Civil War.”

    Agree. Lots more guns also.


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