Over-reliance on incarceration by the US Government?

From the fine folks at the ACLU:

The United States has become a global outlier in its over-reliance on incarceration. Our soaring incarceration rates are, by now, a familiar statistic, expressed in any number of shocking formulas: the U.S. has less than 5 percent of the world’s population but over 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated people; the incarceration rate in the U.S. is four times the average for Western European countries; the U.S. incarcerates more people than South America, Central America and the Caribbean combined. In this era of mass incarceration, the racial disparities are staggering: one in four African-American children in the U.S. has grown up with a parent incarcerated.But none of these statistics quite capture our inhumane treatment of many prisoners, especially those who are the most vulnerable – children, the elderly, and those struggling with mental illness.

I suppose what causes me to dismiss the pleas of activist groups such as the ACLU when it comes to issues such as incarceration rates is that they rarely — if ever — address the fact that no one is required to go to prison.  People (criminals) choose the penal system through denying self-restraint by participating in jailable crimes… and getting caught.  They choose to break the law and have activists like the ACLU by their side making a case as to why they’re not fully to blame and why they shouldn’t bear the punishment.  They are taught from an early age they aren’t responsible for their actions.

Those with mental illness aside, I have little sympathy for those who have chosen to behave as criminals.  Poverty is no excuse either.  Many millions of people live in poverty without selling drugs or robbing their neighbors.  Many millions of people have raised themselves out of poverty through hard work and motivation to leave the run-down neighborhoods; they choose to do well in school rather than drop out.  They choose to take advantage of programs geared toward helping those who want and need help.

It seems painfully obvious to me that so many people are in prison because it is not a deterrent in the United States as it is in other (poorer) countries.  Why is this?  Because of activists like the ACLU.  Their activism has removed the uncomfortableness of prison.  For most prisoners, the experience is not that of the dire conditions in the worst case scenarios as outlined in propagandistic materials produced by sympathizers of the criminal element.  Prisoners in the United States live better than third-world law abiding citizen.  Though I cannot speak to the conditions of solitary confinement as the rest of the above cited article complains, I can speak from experience as to the general prison population and its conditions having worked in law enforcement in the past and have seen the inside of many of my state’s prisons.

To put it bluntly, if jail were more uncomfortable, people would avoid it.


  1. I agree, John – jails and prisons should be more uncomfortable and not just a meeting place for the criminally-minded to congregate. It’s obvious that the current process isn’t working and many have learned to simply work the system. It may be time to re-evaluate some of the laws and penalties that put people in there in the first place. It may be time to develop a better strategy to rehabilitate people in order to be contributing members of society or simply put them down. After all, it’s their choice.

    I am a bit confused by the title of this post, though.

    • Z

      The title is from the original ACLU blog post.

      There’s a reason America leads the world in inmates. No one wants to go to jail in other countries. Their prisons are dank dungeons, the food is gross and you’re treated line an animal.

      In America you’re treated like a kindergartner

  2. John, it would be interesting to see if there are enough non American criminals in US prisons to sway the numbers. For example, Mexican drug dealers arrested in the US will likely end up in our system.

    Also, this seems to ignore the fact that in other justice systems the punishment is not incarceration, but corporal, mutilation, or death.

    • Craig

      You’re right on both parts. I don’t know how much it sways against my point: that whatever the conditions of prisons, no one has to commit crimes. No one has to enter the penal system. Liberals all too often treat this issue as though minorities and career criminals are somehow herded into prison for doing nothing more than being the , as Dan puts it, the wrong color.

      I would support public canings or public humiliation in lieu of certain jail terms. You’re right, many countries have punishments which are not incarceration. However, our prisons are exponentially better living environments than most of the rest of the worlds prisons.

  3. John,
    I don’t think it makes any difference to your point, it may support your point. I think that the numbers are probably lower on the US side when you account for non US criminals, but higher in cultures where that don’t incarcerate. To be an accurate comparison, one would have to find away to correct for the difference between going to jail for theft vs. getting your hand cut off.

    No question that our prisons are much more humane with better conditions.

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