Prisons in the U.S.

Really good article on the huge incarceration rate in the U.S., its causes, its effects, and its value:

Over all, there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America—more than six million—than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height. That city of the confined and the controlled, Lockuptown, is now the second largest in the United States.

The accelerating rate of incarceration over the past few decades is just as startling as the number of people jailed: in 1980, there were about two hundred and twenty people incarcerated for every hundred thousand Americans; by 2010, the number had more than tripled, to seven hundred and thirty-one. No other country even approaches that. In the past two decades, the money that states spend on prisons has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education.


The trouble with the Bill of Rights, he argues, is that it emphasizes process and procedure rather than principles. The Declaration of the Rights of Man says, Be just! The Bill of Rights says, Be fair! Instead of announcing general principles­—no one should be accused of something that wasn’t a crime when he did it; cruel punishments are always wrong; the goal of justice is, above all, that justice be done­—it talks procedurally. You can’t search someone without a reason; you can’t accuse him without allowing him to see the evidence; and so on. This emphasis, Stuntz thinks, has led to the current mess, where accused criminals get laboriously articulated protection against procedural errors and no protection at all against outrageous and obvious violations of simple justice. You can get off if the cops looked in the wrong car with the wrong warrant when they found your joint, but you have no recourse if owning the joint gets you locked up for life. You may be spared the death penalty if you can show a problem with your appointed defender, but it is much harder if there is merely enormous accumulated evidence that you weren’t guilty in the first place and the jury got it wrong. Even clauses that Americans are taught to revere are, Stuntz maintains, unworthy of reverence: the ban on “cruel and unusual punishment” was designed to protect cruel punishments—flogging and branding—that were not at that time unusual.

The author mentions the rise of for-profit businesses increasingly running prisons in the U.S., but I don’t think he makes the point strongly enough. There is now a corporate interest in the U.S. lobbying for such things as mandatory minimum sentencing.

Posted on February 2, 2012 at 9:04 AM66 Comments


bob February 2, 2012 9:56 AM

Punishing criminals is a sop to the victim and to our sense of “fairness”. The idea is pushed by politicians because it’s an easy win with stupid people.

Imprison the dangerous ones. Stick those that can be rehabilitated in privately run secure centres. Fine anyone that has a permanent job.

That just leaves those that can’t be rehabilitated…

Ben February 2, 2012 9:56 AM

Interesting article.

“It seems that one man in every thousand once in a while does a truly bad thing.”

Looks more like one in 20 to me though.

Mike B February 2, 2012 9:59 AM

First of all remember that at least 500,000 of those currently locked up are those that used to inhabit the old mental health system before the de-institutionalization movement in the 1960’s. Yes prison isn’t the best way to treat the mentally ill, but since all of the inpatient mental hospitals were closed there is simply nowhere else to put them. Better comparisons to other countries would combine both those in prison and the mentally ill in residential facilities.

Second, the good news is that the rubber will meet the road when prison costs simply become unsustainable. If the public is forced to actually choose between services they use and locking people up in prison they will back peddle on prison, especially for non-violent drug type offenders.

Third, how many other developed countries have a crime rate as high as it is in the United States? In the 70’s and 80’s crime was out of control here and despite amazing progress in getting those rates down, it is still much higher than in other developed nations. If the United States simply has more criminal activity then it follows that the United States would have more people in prison. The high incarceration rate simply reflects the US’s commitment to public safety than compared to countries where crime typically goes unpunished or punished through non-judicial means.

Fourth, prison can be seen as a form of backdoor social safety net. Because providing social services is generally unpopular with voters, those unable to find work inevitably wind up in the criminal justice system. They are then given room, board and medical care in large state run poor houses under the more popular line item of public safety instead of “welfare”. Countries have always had to deal with their surplus labor force. Previously they would be culled through disease and military conflict. Since those two factors have been tamed Europe has chosen an extensive welfare apparatus while the United States has chosen prison.

NobodySpecial February 2, 2012 10:07 AM

“If the public is forced to actually choose between services they use and locking people up in prison they will back peddle on prison,”

Really – people would choose services they need over safety and security?
Then why does the US have 11 carrier battle groups and no free comprehensive health service?

Dan February 2, 2012 10:07 AM

The main reason that we have 6M people in prison is that we have 12M anti-social idiots and our police are only half as effective as we’d like.

Next topic.

will shetterly February 2, 2012 10:20 AM

Sometimes I think we should now talk about the Military-Industrial-Prison Complex. Other times, I think Eisenhower’s fear of the Military-Industrial Complex have been so realized that we can just reduce the old term to the Government-Corporation Complex: privatization of the military and prisons just shows everything’s for sale, including incarceration and death.

Mr. Sunshine February 2, 2012 10:29 AM

Only six million? Man, if we could just get to the point where half the population is in prison and the other half is employed guarding them, we’d have solved crime AND unemployment……

Mike B February 2, 2012 10:29 AM

“Really – people would choose services they need over safety and security?
Then why does the US have 11 carrier battle groups and no free comprehensive health service?”

Because we never had a free comprehensive health service to give up. People don’t respond to hypothetical choices like that. However if you asked someone to choose between their schools (or roads, parks, etc) or locking people uo..and really meant it…they would probably choose the services that directly benefit them. Sure some of the think of the children crowd would stick to their vindiction, but the vast majority of people don’t get any benefit from knowing other are suffering in prison.

wtfo February 2, 2012 10:35 AM

“The trouble with the Bill of Rights, he argues, is that it emphasizes process and procedure rather than principles.”

Patrick Henry smelled a rat – this is the result of that rat having its way.

karrde February 2, 2012 10:42 AM

To test the article, I clicked on the link and did a search for “drug”.

Despite the lack of the word “drug” in the short synopsis here, it occurs several times there. Especially in reference to laws mandating long sentences for small amounts of possession.

Mike February 2, 2012 10:45 AM

You see, jails are too comfortable because human-right activists want murderers and career criminals to have basic human rights too. If you ask me that’s BS – reduce initial sentence time but throw every convicted criminal in a solitary confinement for the duration of their sentence, push some food under the door 2 times a day… it’s going to be so bad (people are known to have lost their marbles from prolonged solitary confinement), that people will think twice before committing another crime and risking going to jail. Right now, if you are caught, you are looking at a couple of years of free shelter with some TV and conjugal visits. Why wouldn’t you commit a crime, especially if you’ve got nothing to lose?

p.s. You might need to figure out what to do with all the people who do lose their marbles after being in solitary confinement for a year… but that’s what we’re getting social healthcare for, right? 🙂

-b February 2, 2012 11:03 AM

It’s primarily the result of the “War On Some Drugs”. Decriminalize drugs, tax them and set up help channels like for booze, undermine the black market overnight.

Prohibition has never worked.

Craig February 2, 2012 11:09 AM

Part of the issue with process vs. principles is that the cultural tradition we inherited from the British wants the legal system to be predictable. Strict adherence to process is part of making things more predictable, but this is opposed to making the system more just, because the process tends to limit the freedom of judges and juries to decide each case on its own rather than simply assigning it to one of a limited set of categories and then applying the rules for that category.

The prison population is also increased by the amazing amount of required process associated with capital punishment — automatic appeals, years spent on death row while appeals are considered, etc. Before all this came in, you could be sentenced to death and executed in comparatively short order, so the death row population was much smaller at any given time. I’m not saying it was better that way, but it’s a factor in considering prison populations.

Daniel February 2, 2012 11:12 AM

Honestly this just another spin job. The fact of the matter is that most countries in Europe have a higher incarceration /rate/ than the USA. The reason that the USA has more people in prison in total and per capita is because we give out much longer sentences on average than many other countries. Whether those longer sentences are cost-effective at deterring future crime is a subject of strong controversy.

I absolutely agree about the deleterious effects of the corporate profit-motive in this area. However, it’s worth noting that the largest amount of monetary donations promoting California’s three-strikes law came from the prison union in that state, a public employee union. So to be fair when one doesn’t have industry fighting for profits one has unions fighting for more jobs. The ‘tough on crime’ mantra has benefited both democrats and republicans with the only difference being the group of political supporters to which the money has flowed. That’s the main reason the problem as proved so intractable and nothing to do with silliness about the difference between “fair vs just”.

Clive Robinson February 2, 2012 11:47 AM

For those talking about prison as a form of social welfare, consider there is one essential difference,

Having been ill and recovered or unemployed for a while is not usually stigmatized, but having been to prison even though subsequently found innocent is still heavily stigmatized usually to eyond the grave.

Further being either ill or unemployed three times does not automatically condem you to spending the rest of your life removed from society.

If as some people do you take the viewpoint that prison is a cheap form of labour, ask yourself why you still have a job and have not been replaced by a member of a “chain gang”.

And though I hate to bring it up (as it’s usually a sign of using emotive argument) back in 1933 Europe had a history of eugenics, with many countries offering petty criminals a choice of a short sentance and being castrated/sterilised or an indefinite imprisonment of hard labour. The crime rate did not fall. But in Germany worse was starting, Hitler had labour camps, concentration camps, compulsory steralisation and euthanasia, none of which realy solved any of Germanies economic or social problems. They then went for adultering gold reserves and invasion of other countries as new age Imperialism. Again that did not work, and eventually other countries had to fight back the “mad dog” to it’s kennal, but as was observed at the time the bitch that sired the dog was still in heat. It just looks like she’s moved to tthe land of the free to whelp her new pups.

Dan H. February 2, 2012 12:02 PM

A couple of further tricks for cutting crime rates suggest themselves. Firstly for very minor crime re-introduce corporal punishments as places like Singapore still use; a caning is quick, cheap to administer and for a juvenile picked up on a minor charge is likely to put them off crime for life without really affecting them much otherwise.

Secondly, legalise pretty much all narcotic drugs, but instead of viewing intoxication as a mitigating factor in any other crime, view it as an aggravating factor. The net effect of such a change is that if a person wishes to go out and get drunk, stoned, intoxicated or whatever then as an adult this is perfectly OK, as long as they don’t try driving, operating heavy equipment or committing crimes whilst under the influence.

The ethos here is that drugs have always existed, no ban any time in history has succeeded in eradicating them, and bans only serve to make drugs profitable and a magnet for crime. Remove the illegality and the quality goes up and price drops through the floor, this puts drug gangs out of business entirely and frees up police for other purposes.

David February 2, 2012 12:03 PM

Many commenters here seem not to have actually read the article, but Bruce is right, it is very interesting.

READ the article. It’s worth it.

The article is not just about America’s much higher incarceration rate than every other country including the USSR (see Nils Christie “Crime Control as Industry”), but also about the reasons for the significant drop in crime in the USA in the last decade.

As the author says, the reasons for the drop in crime, according to Franklin E. Zimring’s new book, “The City That Became Safe,” will not please Conservatives or Liberals. “Crime ends as a result of “cyclical forces operating on situational and contingent things rather than from finding deeply motivated essential linkages.” Conservatives don’t like this view because it shows that being tough doesn’t help; liberals don’t like it because apparently being nice doesn’t help, either. Curbing crime does not depend on reversing social pathologies or alleviating social grievances; it depends on erecting small, annoying barriers to entry.”

Crime is not reduced by incarceration, or punishment. Yet something must be done to control crime. That something should be humane and effective. The current American approach seems to be wrong in multiple ways: systemic incentives to incarcerate, unreliable judicial system, racial/ethnic bias in outcomes, lack of rehabilitation, lack of meaningful reintegration to society, criminalization of minor crimes, ignoring mental health problems, lack of sentencing discretion for judges…

As Nils Christie says, the incarceration rate in the USA will not come down until society perceives the costs involved as being to high to continue to bear. It appears this is starting to happen.

Michael H February 2, 2012 12:29 PM

“There is now a corporate interest in the U.S. lobbying for such things as mandatory minimum sentencing.”

I’d be interested in reading more about that. Do you have anything you can direct my way?

derka February 2, 2012 12:41 PM

marc emery runs a good blog about the us fed prison system. his cellmate is a blind 19yr old kid who got 5yrs because his fingerprints were on a small bag of cocaine. He writes about the slave labour system they are forced into and total lack of rehabilitation. Also noteworthy is the institutionalized racism in American dominant lockups where when he was in James Ray FDC which is a prison entirely made up of foreigners there were no racial problems at all because no Americans

MarkH February 2, 2012 12:44 PM

@Daniel, who wrote “The fact of the matter is that most countries in Europe have a higher incarceration /rate/ than the USA. The reason that the USA has more people in prison in total and per capita is…”


This seems to say that most countries in Europe have a higher “incarceration rate” than the USA, while at the same time saying that the USA “has more people in prison … per capita.”

To me, incarceration rate IS the number of people in prison per capita. The USA rate is by far the highest in the world, and has famously been so for years.

The USA rate is about 20% greater than its nearest rival, and about double that of the highest rate in Europe (Belarus). It is almost five times that of the highest rate of any Western European state (UK).

Perhaps Daniel has in mind a different figure, such as the number of people entering prison per unit time?

Captain Obvious February 2, 2012 12:50 PM

It’s pretty obvious the current system does not provide sufficient deterrence.

Bring back the noose.

kiwano February 2, 2012 1:06 PM


The criminal justice system is a phenomenally expensive/inefficient back-door social safety net. My wife used to work in social services and had good hard numbers that a welfare cheque and full subsidized and assisted social housing unit cost about 20-25% of what a spot in a low-security prison costs. Of course that didn’t stop the government from diverting the social housing clientele into the prison system in the name of fiscal responsibility.

It’d be really nice if points like this could actually make it into the public debate more visibly and promimently, but social workers just don’t have the funds to buy ads and contribute to political campaigns the way that prison developers do..

Dan S February 2, 2012 1:23 PM

@Michael H….a good example of the prison-industrial complex creating demand for their services via legislation is the recent immigration legislation in Arizona, which was written by prison industry lobbyists. Many ICE detention centers are privately run by firms such as CCA, G4S (formerly Wackenhut)
See post below: Interview and transcirpt re same. Tons more material on same issue out there.

aaytch February 2, 2012 1:23 PM

The “Bill of Rights” is not the only document in American Constitutional Law that specifies the rights of its citizens. The Declaration of Independence specifies certain inalienable rights endowed by the Creator: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. America fought the civil war over whether “liberty” (for the innocent) is a protected right, and it may fight other wars over whether life (for the unborn) is protected or whether the pursuit of happiness means self determination… not just equal but rather absolute. Contrary to the view of the author, America does have certain essential, non-relative and inviolable principles.

Figureitout February 2, 2012 1:58 PM

Lots of disturbing language, trends and scenarios in the article…

The whole privatization/marketization incentive system for prisons is the most disturbing to me. This means the “spigot of criminals” needs to keep flowing, and I recall numerous articles where people didn’t even know they were breaking the law, and ended up with multiple years in prison. And even though 1-5 years doesn’t sound like a long time, in prison it is (lock yourself in your bathroom for 1-5 years).

Going off the incentive theme, I think having a quota for police, even though may be meant to ensure they don’t just sit around, means that they will be looking for every little teeny tiny infraction to be able to keep their job. Crime quotas should be re-evaluated in my opinion.

tobias d. robison February 2, 2012 2:07 PM

There would be far fewer people in jail, if our country did not actively pursue people who buy marijuana and drugs, and jail the lowest level of dealers. I learned from my stretch in Grand Jury how actively the police try to catch the dealers who make less than fifty dollars a night dealing crack and marijuana.

The “war on drugs” is a mighty missile mis-aimed. The desire of the American People to consume drugs is what fuels the production, smuggling and dealing that we officially find so distasteful.

There’s an awesome amount of hypocrisy at work here. Is there any way to sweep it away, other than to appeal most of our drug laws?

aikimark February 2, 2012 2:59 PM

I liked Rachel Maddow’s reporting on the politics behind the AZ SB1070 bill.

The state senator behind the bill, with ties to the private prison industry, was recalled.

I was also moved by this Fresh Air interview with Michelle Alexander, the author of
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

Daniel February 2, 2012 3:10 PM


If you look at the number of people put in prison every year the number is higher per capita in Europe. But since the average sentence is Europe is much shorter the number of people incarcerated is less. Another way to look at is is as follows: while the USA has more people per capita that are currently in prison Europe actually has more ex-prisoners per capita. The major difference between Europe and the USA is that Europe plays ‘catch and release’ while the USA plays ‘catch and hold’.

If people have a genuine interest in this topic I suggest participating in the forums at the following location.

There is all the data in the world (and all the argument you ever want) at that site.

Anton February 2, 2012 3:12 PM

“There is now a corporate interest in the U.S. lobbying for such things as mandatory minimum sentencing.”

Hmmm… good point. Reminds of the dynamics where drug companies are taking over the health agenda and putting their interests above those of the society as a whole.

George February 2, 2012 3:28 PM

There’s also the reason nobody in Congress is willing to impose oversight and accountability on the TSA: Nobody wants to be branded “soft on crime” or “soft on drugs” or “soft on terrorism” (or terrorism) by an opponent in the next election, or be blamed for “weakening security” or “coddling criminals” when a crime or terrorist act occurs. That fear allows the TSA and the prison-industrial complex to exercise their natural bureaucratic imperative to expand.

fusion February 2, 2012 3:55 PM

Underlying this is the twisted concept of revenge, and the biblical basis for much law.

What is needed is not retributive but restorative justice

Dmitry February 2, 2012 3:59 PM

The comparison of the US penitentiary system to the Gulag is nothing short of an outrage. A “backdoor safety net” compared to the forced labor camps were people were underfed, overworked and died by the million (no, no exaggeration here). “One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich” is a must read for whoever wants to get a glimpse at what it was like.

Wayne February 2, 2012 4:03 PM

Drug laws are probably the big reason for the incarnation rate. leglaize drugs is tooted as an answer and while it would reduce the prison costs it would raise costs in other areas such as health care.

Sure taxes are raised as a way to help pay for these costs, but with drugs like cannabis skirting the taxation by growing your own and using it is easy enough. Hard to tell the diffeence between a taxable pot and pot raised outside the system

NobodySpecial February 2, 2012 5:42 PM

Simple solution – treat white collar crime in the same way.
Not paying a parking meter = same sentence as possession of a single joint.

Cheating on a tax form = same sentence as armed robbery for that amount.

Elected official lying, or accepting bribes/favors = same sentence as being paid as an agent by a foreign power.

Result would be 100% incarceration thus solving all the USA’s problems overnight.

Danny February 2, 2012 6:25 PM

Process and procedure are observable and testable; principles are not. In theory, at least, you can objectively test whether a certain act was a crime when it occurred. But what does “Be just!” mean, and how can you objectively test whether a certain act was just?

wintermute February 2, 2012 7:31 PM

Look up Norway’s reoffender rates for prisoners and its the lowest in the world. Their prison system is about rehabilitaion away from criminal behaviour and psych wards. US prison system is about caged animals spending 5-10 yrs stabbing each other then being released to society. US prison system is con university the only thing you learn is how to be a better criminal as the libraries are bone dry as they consider almost all magazines and books contraband

Gabriel February 2, 2012 9:23 PM

One problem to consider is politics. If you’re not seen as tough on crime, then good luck getting elected dog catcher. Just ask Dukakis or Huckabee. This makes the system stacked, where it is in a politician’s best interest to keep criminals incarcerated for a long time and even prevent the innocent from being exonerated. The recent Troy Davis execution was one example. In this case, it was obviously 50/50 that either he or the prime witness against him committed the murder. One would think that would stop the death penalty and mandate further investigation. Yet on appeal, the standard was not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, but something more like he had to prove himself innocent beyond a shadow of a doubt. Federal judges may not be elected, but they have to earn appointment from a politician. Can’t get promoted in the circuit or to the Supreme Court if you are too “pro criminal”.

Peter E Retep February 2, 2012 10:25 PM

@Michael H
You might look up who has the licenses to the surveillance patenbts for SuperMax prisons in the U.S.

Also, consider the labor-wage scale.

Neil Riemann February 3, 2012 4:43 AM

Private prisons create another problem you don’t mention. Their managers deny that they are “state actors” and therefore deny any obligation to provide even the constitutional procedural protections that the article finds to be lacking. They have generally found success with this approach in court.

Tim February 3, 2012 5:04 AM

@ Peter – any links? Google isn’t being helpful, though of course is giving me some shopping options “85 Products … Taiwan Super Max, Choose Quality Taiwan Super Max Products” .

Jay February 3, 2012 5:29 AM

@Daniel again: It doesn’t matter how high you Americans set prison terms. If you get sixty times life, you’re out of prison in a year or two for ‘good behaviour’ (or is it relations with money..?). Elsewhere, you may get ‘only’ twenty years, but will serve much, much closer to twenty years. [Disclaimer: I’m certainly not against all of how US society is organized!]
And, that things are different elsewhere; how would that impact the desirability of how the US system works out…?

aam February 3, 2012 6:00 AM

From overseas I must say that, althou I do not wish for 100% incarsoration rate, but it would hopely keep YOUR army at bay.

Law is just like bully saying, if you do something that I know you can do, I will take a right to hurt you in a way I see fit. And that’s right, right?

Well, I’ll be waiting for your next revolution ,with a bucket full of popcorn.

Gabriel February 3, 2012 6:32 AM

@Neil: you’ve hit the nail on a much larger problem with our judicial system. Private corporate entities that perform quasi governmental roles are not being held to constitutional standards (just look at HOAs). 14th amendment incorporation of due process and rights is only being applied to true government entities. The solution, which no one wants to implement, is to either apply constitutional protections to private entities as well, or prohibit these entities from performing any functions where they may infringe such rights. The former would be more workable.

Clive Robinson February 3, 2012 7:20 AM

OFF Topic:

As Bruce has not had a Squid page…

I’ve had a deja vue moment on reading about VeriSign’s 10K filing…

It appears they have been hacked a number of times last year and lost significant data that they have had to put it in their 10K filing to comply with the new U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) guidelines on such things.

However they have not supplied details only rather worrying platitudes such as

Given the nature of such attacks, we cannot assure that our remedial actions will be sufficient to thwart future attacks or prevent the future loss of information

In addition, although the Company is unaware of any situation in which possibly exfiltrated information has been used, we are unable to assure that such information was not or could not be used in the future.

Just bare in mind that untill it divested it’s self of it’s CA business to Symantex it was the world’s largest and possibly most trusted supplier of certs, which calls a whole load of things into question as VeriSgin won’t “fess up” the details.

onearmedspartan February 3, 2012 7:21 AM

We should get prisoners to do more dirty work. Prison is supposed to be more than justice for crimes against the public. But it’s not. Judges are soft, Governers are pardoning murders and rapists and gun laws are too restrictive. Instead of being rebilitative, prison is a joke for hardened criminals. Some are completely content to be back behind bars with their pals!
I’ve read some good arguments and some interesting ones here. Discipline starts at home. The problem will only get worse as education has taken a back seat in this country. Spare the rod…

Andromedus February 3, 2012 8:07 AM

While it’s true that the American criminal justice system is seriously broken, I really really disagree with the blame that’s being heft on due process and the Bill of Rights. Plea bargaining is a much bigger issue. So many people are convicted today WITHOUT due process because they’re essentially coerced into waiving their constitutional rights.[1] Plea bargaining didn’t exist when the Constitution was written; the Constitution “says the trial of ALL crimes… shall be by Jury” and it’s just not happening. So don’t blame due process when so few people are getting it.

And I’m really irked to see that the article repeats the myth that people frequently get off on technicalities – in reality it doesn’t happen that much.[2] And this myth is why so many of these rights are being whittled down today.

Finally, I find it sickening how this article positively portrays New York’s disgusting stop-and-frisk program.

The article does make one good point about process: too much weight is put on finality so it is indeed way too difficult to get a wrongful conviction overturned even in the face of massive exculpatory evidence. But in light of everything else, I really do not like this article. Although I want more people to be exposed to this serious issue, I wish this article had not been published.


jacob February 3, 2012 9:02 AM

This topic is very complex once you drill down into it.
Mandatory prison sentences for nonviolent crimes? Why not restitution?

Debtor’s prison? teach them skills/knowledge.

Only lock up violent criminals. Non violent criminals can and do come out more violent and muscular.

Private business running prisons? You are asking for abuses by cutting costs.

Work camps and making prisons self sufficient by crops and animals? why not? It would keep them busy, cost less, and may even teach them some skills and build up tools for life on the outside.

Allow non violent felons to vote and expunge records after 10 yrs. It really limits their future endeavors in life to have a life long black mark for a non violent crime.

Why prison terms for drugs? I’m not talking cartel type quantities but possession. I’m not advocating drugs or libertarian views here. Just the costs and futility.

Just random thoughts.

jammit February 3, 2012 10:12 AM

It doesn’t matter if it’s the war on drugs working or not working. It doesn’t matter if the war on crime is working or not working. It doesn’t matter if mandatory sentencing is working or not working. What does matter is that what ever this is, it’s not working. We need to look at other countries and see how theirs works, and if they work better, and see how that could be incorporated into our structure.

karrde February 3, 2012 10:13 AM

@Clive Robinson 11:47:
Europe was not alone in attempting eugenics to decrease crime in the 1930s. If you research the US Supreme Court case titled “Buck vs. Bell”, you will find an endorsement of government eugenics in the interest of decreasing crime.

At least, the justification was to protect society from propagation of families by the unfit and the mentally-retarded…

karrde February 3, 2012 11:11 AM

@David 12:03

I am reading the article, and finding it contains a mix of opinion, fact, and interpretation. Are people failing to read it, or misunderstanding which is fact and which is opinion?

Before I get to the article: we’ve seen claims in the comments here about
(a) decrease in facilities for handling the insane
(b) a replacement for social services (in the sense that people who are under-served turn to criminal behavior which will likely lead to prison time…)
(c) differences in conviction-rate and length-of-imprisonment between US and Europe
(d) the way that ‘hard on crime’ turns into votes, even when ‘hard on crime’ leads to laws that are overzealous against petty criminals
(e) claims that changes in the crime rate are hard to link to either generic-Conservative or generic-Liberal talking points about crime
(f) laws meant to curtail problems caused by illegal immigrants in border states are bought and paid for by the Prison Industrial complex
(g) the War on (some) Drugs and the ratchet-effect of making laws with harder sentences for smaller possession-amounts.

Of these, I think that claim (e) makes the most sense; claims (a) and (b) appear to be the runners-up.

Claim (c) might or might not be useful; we must remember that Europe has a different society than America does, with different patterns of crime and different priorities in dealing with criminals. Calling one right and the other wrong may seem easy, but I would rather know more about the differences in culture before I agree to a judgement about the rightness of one vs. the other.

Claim (g) seems to be a big elephant in the room, and one that is causing ripples. (Witness a recent submission of citizen-questions to President Obama, in which a former policeman from California asked if the War on (some) Drugs ought to be scaled back…)

However, any change on that front would require a change of attitudes by a large number of voters…but how is that different from the other problems in the prison system?

Claim (f) is kind of odd, since there appears to be a lot of public support in border states for laws curtailing illegal-immigration…thus I would not be surprised that companies involved in running prisons would have some members supporting those laws. But that’s a debate about immigration-law, not the Prison-Industrial Complex.

Now, to the article: it appeared to start with a hard opinion against certain parts of American culture. Basically, the opinions appear to be America-is-racist-and-the-South-still-wants-slavery, combined with the-North-prefers-soulless-Corporate-Factories. While this may cover some of the facts, the social science underneath these opinions was barely mentioned. To my eyes, they appear to be assumed and not explained. (I doubt Bruce wishes us to debate those ideas here; I will try to refrain from mentioning them further.) At any rate, I had to read on further before I saw more fact than opinion.

During that further reading I discovered that the article goes over most of the explanations of the sudden drop in crime rates in America during the late 80s and early 90s. This section is more fact-filled, but still has strong opinions mixed in with the reporting. The main exploration, with the most convincing comparison of facts, is the difference between the apparently-successful methods of the New York police and the imitation/misuse of those methods elsewhere in the U.S.

And I think that underlines the biggest problem with trying to fix the prison system in the U.S. Both prisons and police-departments are segregated into local, State, and Federal-level agencies with different responses to local conditions. Too many authorities are involved for any solution to be implemented in a timely way across the entire country.

Also, there appear to be fads in the police and law-enforcement business. These fads can be applied (or misapplied) like various security methods. I think we’ve all seen Bruce talk about the value of key-length, and how more than one failed attempt at security came from a deep misunderstanding of how to apply key-length correctly to the problems of encryption.

Likewise, police methods like those in use by NYPD are easy to misapply. They’re also hard for the average citizen to understand. As long as the average middle-class citizen never has an interaction with the Police (beyond a traffic stop), they have an inability to understand and appreciate how these police methods affect those who deal with the Police/prisons every day. Thus, the average voter doesn’t understand what good Policing/incarceration is, and they vote for slogans about good Policing/incarceration.

Anatoly Nechaev February 4, 2012 2:26 AM

I don’t know how much the author of the article knows about US penitentiary system, but he knows jack about USSR’s.
He quotes the number from fictitious book. The author of which was a prison snitch. This number of 6+ millions is bogus.

If you want the official number from KGB archives, it’s 2,561,351 in 1950.

Davis Bradley February 4, 2012 8:49 AM

I did some fairly hard time (2 years) in Texas TDC for not paying my bill for a car I rented (and forgot about since I had changed addresses and was traveling often for work). I owed $1,500 dollars. I imagined all I needed was to pay the bill and a fine but instead got 2 years in TDC Prison (very far from my family so ended up losing them too). Sure, I could have done things differently (my bad in the end) but was it necessary to destroy the life I had because of money that was owed to a rental car company? That seems at the ver least debatable. My impression after this experience is that there are many people in prison that should not be there. It seems that the prison system itself is an industry and laws are written to support this industry. Sure, most of the guys I met belonged there but many did not.

Years later I did some checking and found that the agency I rented the car from was managed by a close friend of someone in the county government. I didn’t stand a chance.

I lost my job, my family, my house, everything I owned was thrown into the streets. I think that is wrong. At least it seems wrong.

I’m sure that there are plenty of “law & order” Republicans that would say I deserved it. But is it right to destroy a person over a financial mistake? Or even a mistake with drugs, or whatever else we get involved with in bad moments.

jack February 4, 2012 9:21 AM

@Davis Bradley:

“I did some fairly hard time (2 years) in Texas TDC for not paying my bill for a car I rented (and forgot about since I had changed addresses and was traveling often for work). I owed $1,500 dollars. I imagined all I needed was to pay the bill and a fine but instead got 2 years in TDC Prison (very far from my family so ended up losing them too).”

I thought you cannot end up in prison because of money debt in USA? (In fact UAE is the first place I thought I heard of this possibility)

MarkH February 4, 2012 2:48 PM


As far as I know, you are correct: in the USA, citizens can’t be jailed for simply failing to pay a contractual debt — or even taxes, if they are genuinely unable to pay them.

I suspect there’s rather more to “Davis Bradley’s” story. For example, he might have failed to return the car leading to a charge of theft; or perhaps rented the car with a false ID, or attempted a payment with a bad check leading to charges of fraud.

FWIW, the name “Davis Bradley” is attached (among other things) to a drug-abuse treatment center.

Scott February 4, 2012 7:48 PM

@-b: “Decriminalize drugs, tax them and set up help channels like for booze, undermine the black market overnight. Prohibition has never worked.”

You’re assuming that the purpose of current prohibition is to curb drug use.

Heron February 6, 2012 7:57 AM

I think this is more an issue with the people who rule on issues of rights violations, appellate judges and the Supremes, than necessarily one with the BoR. The founding documents can lay out as clearly as they please the protections they recognize for citizens in the United States, but if the people tasked with enforcing those protections choose, for wholly political reasons, to deliberately seek interpretations that minimize protections, there’s little you can do. Scalia and Thomas are products of the resentment-driven conservative reaction to the liberal victories of the Post-War era; students of Bork who’s primary goal isn’t an honest interpretation of the Constitution, but rather to gin up whatever rationalizations they can for “rolling back” the liberal agenda. The inconsistent reasoning and deliberate misrepresentations of cites within their opinions is an obvious proof of this. Alito and Roberts are political animals; judges who’s careers are founded in, and have always been furthered by, service to The Party Line. The reason a vast preponderance of evidence that you never committed the crime you were convicted for isn’t exculpatory is because 4 out of 9 current Supreme Court Justices see “criminal rights” as a political issues which “their side” is against, and so they favor the simplicity of judicial dockets over the liberty of the individual. It wasn’t always that way, it should be no surprise that the trend began just when Republican judicial appointees and state legislatures were coming on the scene, and it can be unmade by removing this personnel, and their partisan hostility towards “civil rights”, from public office.

paul February 6, 2012 9:48 AM

@markh: There is a growing list of possibilities, some of which have a strong catch-22 flavor to them. You mention the obvious one where non-return of a rented item is converted to a theft charge. But there are also a bunch of administrative paths to incarceration: for example, failure to fulfill the terms of a court-ordered restitution program can trigger a jail term for contempt, as can failure to appear at a hearing (even if the defendant wasn’t aware of the hearing because, say, they’d moved.) And of course if being jailed for misfeasance related to one debt causes you to miss payments on another debt or fail to return a different rented item, the circle continues. A good lawyer could extricate you, but if a debtor facing jail could pay for a good lawyer they likely wouldn’t be a debtor facing jail.

(I don’t know whether the rules for rental cars have changed in the past decade, but I do remember being, um, convinced to sign up for a collision damage waiver in Hawaii by a clerk who pointed out that liability for damage to a vehicle included lost revenue until such time as repair parts could be shipped from the mainland. With those kinds of rules, “forgetting” to return a rental could rack up a house-sized debt in short order.)

Jon February 6, 2012 3:47 PM

@ Mike B : February 2, 2012 9:59 AM

“… how many other developed countries have a crime rate as high as it is in the United States?”

American exceptionalism is /never/ a good or convincing argument.

“In the 70’s and 80’s crime was out of control here”

Neither is hyperbole.

“it is still much higher than in other developed nations. … the United States simply has more criminal activity then it follows that the United States would have more people in prison.”

And neither are circular arguments.

“The high incarceration rate simply reflects the US’s commitment to public safety”

That commitment is at best debateable. What isn’t debateable is that it’s be spectacularly ineffective.

“Debate than compared to countries where crime typically goes unpunished or punished through non-judicial means.”

Which country would that be then – Strawmanistan?

“… prison can be seen as a form of backdoor social safety net.”

As a rationale, that’s just utterly fvcked, on any number of levels

Davd F February 7, 2012 10:17 AM

The Constitution and Bill of Rights specify process over principles because the process can be defined and followed and an objective judgement of the degree to which proceess is followed is possible. Same cannot be said for principle. The French Revolution stands as the condemnation of the legal principle of principle. Americans in the 1790’s absolutely looked with horror at the French Revolution. The French Revolution killed perhaps a quarter of a million people, most killed on principle. That was the vindication of the US Consititution that lived for almost 200 years. But not we are agin calling for ‘principle’, put we forget that principle for me may not be principle for you. Let’s stick with process.

vasiliy pupkin February 9, 2012 8:29 AM

Sorry, link was not properly incorporated in comment. Content could be found on the Internet by any serach tool:

Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners

Adopted by the First United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, held at Geneva in 1955, and approved by the Economic and Social Council by its resolutions 663 C (XXIV) of 31 July 1957 and 2076 (LXII) of 13 May 1977.

You can see that prison rape is NOT part of prisoner treatment by internationally recognized rules/standards.

That problem should be major concern of State Attorney Generals and DOJ on Federal level (civil right units) for proper actions. Status quo is shameful for civilized country.

Jarda February 12, 2012 6:14 PM

Prisons are a great business – for some directly, when they run the prison, for others indirectly, when they hire the cheap labour from the prisons. So don’t expect a change any time soon, you will rather see further worsening of the situation. E.g. jail time for speeding or bad parking. Also, prisons have one advantage for the state: they keep the unemployed off the streets. That makes not only good business for some as mentioned before, but makes for better unemployment statistics too.

me March 15, 2012 10:30 AM

“Years later I did some checking and found that the agency I rented the car from was managed by a close friend of someone in the county government. I didn’t stand a chance.”

Wether this davis person is telling the whole truth I cannot possibly say, but I am more than a little confident that this statement is SO CLOSE to the truth that if you are an ultra-con/those in authority are righter than others kinda guy or gal, you might consider a come to jesus meeting with yourself and pick a new path to salvation or perhaps, repent.

And de-institutionalization is so grossly undereastimated in its impacts on our society it boggles my mind it’s not discussed more frequently. It is a MASSIVE failure and incredibly uncivilized in its total disregard for human life and the very vunerable in society. I’ve been doing hobbyist research on this very topic myself the last few years, particularly since hearing about an abhorrent ( to me ) little idea called ‘privatization of prisons’.

What’s so disheartening at the end of the day, really, is when too many truths begin sliding closer and closer to the surreal mindsets of carpet baggers like Alex Jones and any other conspiracists out there. THAT is really troubling!

Get the mentally ill out of harms way of the violent offenders, publically and privately. Do this by giving them some sense of ‘Home’ and community back where they’re as safe as possible. One or two bad abuses doesn’t justify tossing the baby with the bath water and often, anyway, those abuses were heavily influenced by serious budget constraints which put the inexperienced and untrained on staff or didn’t allow for hiring of more ( needed ) staff. The mentally ill aren’t, the vast majority of the time, even treated in prison! And they’re certainly not safe from exploitation of their disease processes by others. Neither are addicts or alcoholics for that matter.

So, it’s a good idea to possibly turn them into ‘workers’ because as schizophrenics they don’t always get their numbers right or bills in on time? OMG…Right. Suck them up into that too.

I fear people that use the term ‘work house’ with so little regard to its current weightiness. work camps, death camps, mass sterilization…yeah, all great solutions huh?

I wonder if sympathizers of facists know the precise point in time they turned that way, or did they just slide into the mentality over time?

/end mini-rant

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