A NEW study has made headlines with its finding that the United States leads the world in per-capita incarceration of criminals. Ten years ago the US trailed South Africa and the Soviet Union, two notoriously repressive countries, in that dubious distinction; but after a decade during which the US prison population doubled, we're No. 1. According to the report of the Sentencing Project, the US imprisons 426 people per 100,000 residents, compared with 333 in South Africa and 268 in the USSR. More dismaying still, in the US black males are incarcerated at a rate four times that of black males in South Africa: 3,109 per 100,000 black males, compared with 729 under apartheid.
In much of the media coverage of the report, journalists and analysts have, explicitly or implicitly, drawn negative conclusions about a society that locks up so many of its men and women.
To be sure, the report - whose figures are unchallenged - should occasion American soul-searching and creative policy thinking. It costs the nation about $16 billion a year to incarcerate more than a million prisoners, and prison overcrowding has injurious social consequences, as well. However, the study shouldn't occasion any rush to judgment that people are imprisoned unnecessarily in the US.
Consider some other facts:
The US also leads the world in crime rates. That's shameful, but it goes a long way to explaining the high imprisonment rates. In the '80s the nation didn't experience an incarceration explosion so much as a crime explosion.
At the same time that the prison population doubled, rates of nonincarceration supervision of convicted criminals - probation, parole, house arrest with monitoring - tripled. The probability of a convicted felon going to prison today is less than in 1960, as is the probability that he will serve more than 50 percent of his sentence.
Some 95 percent of all prisoners today are either violent or repeat offenders.
Criminal-justice experts agree there is a need to improve alternative methods of punishment and supervision of criminals. And there probably are classes of criminals that are imprisoned at unnecessarily high rates - particularly nonviolent drug offenders, who need treatment more than jail. Mandatory-minimum-sentence laws should be refined, to give judges somewhat more discretion in sentencing.
Yet many experts also doubt that the US is simply warehousing nonthreatening wrongdoers needlessly. They urge that the response to high incarceration rates should not be the careless release of criminal predators.
The US may have an incarceration problem, but it pales next to America's crime problem. By all means, let's keep people out of prison who don't need to be there. But the nation's greatest exertions in the criminal-justice arena should be to eliminate the conditions that cause crime, especially in the inner cities, and to nip crime in the bud through early-intervention programs.