The current American prison system is a leviathan unmatched in human history. Never before has a supposedly free country denied basic liberty to so many of its citizens. In December 2006, some 2.25 million people were being held in the nearly 5,000 prisons and jails scattered across America's urban and rural landscapes. According to a 2005 report of the International Centre for Prison Studies in London, the United States--with one-twentieth of the world's population--houses one-quarter of the world's inmates. The US incarceration rate (now at 714 prisoners per 100,000 residents) is almost 40 per cent greater than the nearest competitors (the Bahamas, Belarus, and Russia). Other industrial democracies, some with significant crime problems of their own, are much less punitive: The US incarceration rate is 6.2 times that of Canada, 7.8 times that of France, and 12.3 times that of Japan. The US spends some $200 billion annually on law enforcement and corrections at all levels of Government, a fourfold increase (in constant dollars) over the past quarter century.
One-third of inmates in State prisons are violent criminals, convicted of homicide, rape, or robbery. But the other two-thirds consist mainly of property and drug offenders. Inmates are disproportionately drawn from the most disadvantaged parts of society. On average, State inmates have fewer than 11 years of schooling. They are also vastly disproportionately black and brown.
Some argue that this massive increase in incarceration reflects the success of a rational public policy: faced with a compelling social problem, Americans responded by imprisoning people and succeeded in lowering crime rates. Crime rates have, indeed, fallen dramatically since reaching their peak in the early 1990s, and increased incarceration does appear to have reduced crime somewhat. But by how much? Estimates of the share of the 1990s reduction in violent crime that can be attributed to the prison boom range from 5 to 25 per cent. (That is, at most one-quarter of the recent decline in crime can be explained by the rise of imprisonment.) Whatever the number, analysts of all political stripes now agree that we have long ago entered the zone of diminishing returns.
Imprisonment rates have continued to rise while crime rates have fallen for the simple reason that US criminal justice policy has become much more punitive. The nation has made a collective decision to punish offenders more severely. Thus, between 1980 and 2001, the chances of someone being arrested in response to a criminal complaint stayed constant, at just under 50 per cent. But, over this same period, the likelihood that an arrest would result in imprisonment more than doubled, from 13 to 28 per cent. As a result, the incarceration rate for violent crime almost tripled, despite a sharp decline in the level of violence. Incarceration rates for nonviolent and drug offenses increased at an even faster pace: between 1980 and 1997 the number of people imprisoned for nonviolent offenses tripled, and the number incarcerated for drug offenses increased elevenfold.
To be sure, in the United States, as in any society, public order...