Thursday, April 21, 2011

Is Law and Order a Cultural Phenomenon or a Political Choice?

Here's another result from the OECD which I find worth giving because the numbers are so impressive :

The US has the greatest prison population rate in the world and not just a bit - 11 times the rate of France and 5.4 times the rate of the OECD average.

Prison population rate, per 100 000 population in 2008

This graph is very impressive. In fact, between 1972 and 2010 prison population increased 705%.

The reason is tougher longer sentences for crimes that that would not necessarily produce prison sentences in other countries such as dug use.

Even though the crime rate has recently declined in the U.S. it is still about 4 times the level of Europe - especially when it comes to violent crime. (here)

So is toughness on crime a distinct feature of American culture? Not according to Tocqueville anyway :
"In no country is criminal justice administered with more mildness than in the United States.", he wrote in 'Democracy in America' (Book III, chapter I)

Here's an interesting point raised by this 2008 NYTimes article :

Some scholars have found that English-speaking nations have higher prison rates.
"Although it is not at all clear what it is about Anglo-Saxon culture that makes predominantly English-speaking countries especially punitive, they are," Tonry wrote last year in "Crime, Punishment and Politics in Comparative Perspective."
"It could be related to economies that are more capitalistic and political cultures that are less social democratic than those of most European countries," Tonry wrote. "Or it could have something to do with the Protestant religions with strong Calvinist overtones that were long influential."
The American character — self-reliant, independent, judgmental — also plays a role.
"America is a comparatively tough place, which puts a strong emphasis on individual responsibility," Whitman of Yale wrote. "That attitude has shown up in the American criminal justice of the last 30 years."
French-speaking countries, by contrast, have "comparatively mild penal policies," Tonry wrote.

There are also major differences within the U.S. which may be culturally significant :
"Minnesota looks more like Sweden than like Texas," said Mauer of the Sentencing Project. (Sweden imprisons about 80 people per 100,000 of population; Minnesota, about 300; and Texas, almost 1,000. Maine has the lowest incarceration rate in the United States, at 273; and Louisiana the highest, at 1,138.)

From a European perspective, there is definitely a sense that the U.S. is a tough place to live. And as you get older, you tend to be less fascinated by the opportunities and more concerned by the toughness of the system - it be health-care, high violent crime, costly education or a harsh judicial system.

Another more objective major difference is that judges and prosecutors are elected in the U.S. which while being more democratic makes them giving in to popular demand and be "tough on crime". Watch any episode of Law and Order to see what I mean.

To be fair, it must be noted that for the first time in about 40 years, the American jail population has actually declined in the past 2 years (but not its prison rate)

For the second consecutive year the U.S. jail population has dropped -- by 2.4 percent in the 12 months ending June 30, Justice Department officials said.
Report author Todd D. Minton, a statistician at the Bureau of Justice Statistics, said the number of inmates in local jails mainly operated by a local law enforcement dropped from 767,434 to 748,728, following a 2.3 percent decline in 2009. (

A change of heart? Hardly. Pure American pragmatism - crowded jails and soaring costs are impossible recipes in an economic crisis that makes even close schools. (see here and here)

The vast majority of states and local governments are operating under severe budget difficulties and correctional administrators have been told to cut spending. Elaborate explanations will be offered but the heart of the matter is budget. Cities, counties and states can no longer afford the current rates of incarceration. (source)

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