Bulging US Prisons Prompt Cross-Cultural Comparisons

Criminologists say other countries do better at rehabilitative alternatives

America may well be the "land of the free," but a recent survey shows that the United States imprisons more people than any other country.

Nearly 1.6 million Americans are currently living behind bars.

China, with its large population, ranks second, at 1.2 million prisoners. Russia weighs in at just over 1 million.

The numbers are contained in a report by the Washington-based Sentencing Project, a sentencing-reform advocacy group.

Prisons have long been at the center of a national debate about whether the US is incarcerating too many people.

Supporters of beefed-up incarceration say that even if prisons don't rehabilitate criminals, at least they keep them off the streets. In addition, they say harsh conditions in prisons and jails provide a necessary component of punishment that may help deter crime.

These analysts suggest that the nation's falling crime rates are due in large part to tougher sentencing laws resulting in longer prison terms.

On the other side are those who say crime-rate trends are more closely tied to demographic factors. They say prisons are expensive to run and fail to get at the root causes of crime. Many nonviolent offenders, they say, could receive alternative sentences to help them make the transition from offender to productive member of society.

"Continued incarceration has not made people feel much safer and has had at best a modest impact on crime rates," says Mark Mauer, author of the Sentencing Project report. "If we really want to grapple seriously with the crime problem we need a much more comprehensive approach and not just sound-bite political slogans suggesting that prison is the only way to go."

The US prisoner population is at its highest point in history, with federal and state prisons operating beyond their designated capacities by 16 percent to 25 percent, according to a recent Justice Department report.

"We have more of a dependency on punishment in the US," says Harry Dammer, a criminal-justice professor at Niagara University in New York. "Other countries are more prone to believe in the rehabilitative model ... and have a less punitive attitude toward criminals in general."

The Sentencing Project calculates that the incarceration rate for the US is 600 prisoners for every 100,000 people. It ranks second in the world to Russia's rate of 690. China and most of the countries of Western Europe have rates near 100.

Criminal-justice experts say America's higher incarceration rate is primarily due to two factors. First, the US endures much higher levels of violent gun crime than European countries.

Second, the US is increasingly sending large numbers of convicted nonviolent drug offenders to prison as part of the nation's declared war on drugs. Roughly one-quarter of all American prisoners are drug offenders.

"We are much more punitive than any other country," says James Lynch, a criminal-justice professor at American University in Washington.

Mr. Lynch has compared how different countries punish their criminals. He found there was little difference in the propensity to send violent criminals to prison in the US, Canada, Britain, and Germany.

But he found a major difference when it came to less serious property and drug crimes. In Canada, Britain, and Germany convicts usually received alternative sentences, including drug treatment. In the US, they were more likely to go to prison.

Francis Cullen, a criminal-justice professor at the University of Cincinnati, says the US is laboring under a "culture of punishment" that is fed by politicians who know that locking criminals behind bars is popular with voters.

Mr. Cullen says American policymakers have failed since the 1960s to balance the punitive side of their crime strategy with rehabilitation and prevention.

"Although Americans want people locked in prison, there is still widespread support for rehabilitation, because people realize that most criminals are eventually going to be coming out of prison," Cullen says.

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