Locked Up in the U.S.A.: Record Numbers of Inmates

It’s no secret that the United States is engulfed in a culture of fear.  From Amber Alerts to a resurgence of homophobia, we seem to be scared of everything.  Local news stations in small towns will go far out of their way to report on any death that might have occurred.  And it’s not uncommon for violent news to dominate the airways.  Unfortunately, this often trumps more important and relevant news, like tax cuts for the rich and scientific research.

Could this be one of the reasons for the large numbers of Americans that are in prison?  The New York Times reports on statistics in American Exception: Inmate Count in U.S. Dwarfs Other Nations’:

The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population. But it has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners. 

Indeed, the United States leads the world in producing prisoners, a reflection of a relatively recent and now entirely distinctive American approach to crime and punishment. Americans are locked up for crimes — from writing bad checks to using drugs — that would rarely produce prison sentences in other countries. And in particular they are kept incarcerated far longer than prisoners in other nations.

Criminologists and legal scholars in other industrialized nations say they are mystified and appalled by the number and length of American prison sentences.

Criminologists and legal experts here and abroad point to a tangle of factors to explain America’s extraordinary incarceration rate: higher levels of violent crime, harsher sentencing laws, a legacy of racial turmoil, a special fervor in combating illegal drugs, the American temperament, and the lack of a social safety net. Even democracy plays a role, as judges — many of whom are elected, another American anomaly — yield to populist demands for tough justice.

We have far fewer prisoners that the entire nation of China.  A lot of this information seems consistent with statistics cited in Michael Moore’s movie, Bowling for Columbine.  That movie explored Americans’ obsession with violence.

The sad thing is that imprisoning people should be a last resort.  The cost of housing a prisoner is tremendous (not to mention the lost opportunity cost of having an individual that cannot contribute to society in any way).  So what’s the cause?  The article offers some theories, but I think the rise of religion in the United States is partly to blame.  We showed how cowardly and blinded we could be after the September 11th attacks.  We follow a leader who says that God told him to attack a nation, completely unprovoked.  We watch for Amber Alerts that state that a “Gray Volkswagen” was involved in a kidnapping (how could that help anyone?).  Christians fear that a God that supposedly loves them would torture them for all eternity if they break some arbitrary rules.  When we can identify these people, why not lock them up to keep them away from the “good” people?

Living in any society comes with risks.  Unfortunately, it looks like Americans are so terrified of crime, that we would spend amazing amounts of money on removing people from society.

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