Democracy’s Byproducts and American Exceptionalism– Prison System Update


Adam Liptak of The New York Times has recently written a very informative and insightful series on America’s prisons. Updated statistics and analysis from “Inmate Count in U.S. Dwarfs Other Nations” support comments made in my April 13 post, “Have Prisons Become America’s New Social Safety Net?“:

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

The United States has, for instance, 2.3 million criminals behind bars, more than any other nation, according to data maintained by the International Center for Prison Studies at King’s College London.

There is little question that the high incarceration rate here has helped drive down crime, though there is debate about how much. …

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.

Whatever the reason, the gap between American justice and that of the rest of the world is enormous and growing.

It used to be that Europeans came to the United States to study its prison systems. They came away impressed.

“In no country is criminal justice administered with more mildness than in the United States,” Alexis de Tocqueville, who toured American penitentiaries in 1831, wrote in “Democracy in America.”

No more. …

Mr. [James Q.] Whitman,[a specialist in comparative law at Yale] who has studied Tocqueville’s work on American penitentiaries, was asked what accounted for America’s booming prison population.

“Unfortunately, a lot of the answer is democracy — just what Tocqueville was talking about,” he said. “We have a highly politicized criminal justice system.”

For a detailed analysis of the rise in gunfire incidents leading to more murders across America and contributing to the growth in American prisoners, read James Beldock’s blog series on gun violence, “Putting the Bullets Back in the Gun”, and “A PAX on Gun Violence”.

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