Is america the incarceration nation? If we look at solely imprisonment charges—the variety of prisoners per capita at a given cut-off date—then an affirmative reply has at the least superficial enchantment. The imprisonment fee of america (as of 2017) was 440 sentenced prisoners for each 100,000 inhabitants.[1] That is about 4 occasions the speed in Europe.

However imprisonment charges are solely a part of the image. They are saying nothing concerning the causes for our excessive ranges of incarceration. We will’t inform if we over-incarcerate with out taking a look at crime and punishment in additional element.

If our charges are extreme it have to be as a result of considered one of two causes, or some mixture of each. Both we’re locking up too many individuals or we’re maintaining them behind bars too lengthy. As I’ll show, neither of those claims holds as much as shut scrutiny.

We Don’t Lock Up Too Many

If we contemplate the explanations for imprisonment it rapidly turns into clear that we aren’t incarcerating too many individuals. First off, a majority of inmates in state prisons—55 p.c—are serving time for severe violent crimes, together with homicide, rape and assault.[2] Even when their punishments didn’t deter different offenders, perpetrators of such acts of violence would deserve prolonged incarceration on retributive grounds alone.

The remaining crimes of state jail inmates is probably not violent, however they’re severe and the perpetrators typically have lengthy information of different grave offenses.[3] A current research discovered {that a} staggering 83 p.c of launched prisoners had been rearrested inside 9 years of discharge. Most individuals would agree that incorrigibility is a sound foundation for imposing longer-than-usual sentences, which, as I’ll clarify, raises incarceration charges.

Although it doesn’t by itself justify imprisoning the 1.5 million presently behind bars, it ought to be saved in thoughts that many offenders go unpunished. This contains those that commit an estimated 3.Three million unreported offenses a yr in addition to hundreds of reported crimes that the police by no means resolve, together with 86 p.c of burglaries, 70 p.c of robberies, and 67 p.c of rapes. Our incarceration charges can be even increased if extra severe offenders had been caught and punished.

After all, there are and all the time might be remoted miscarriages of justice, or a small proportion of sentences that can not be justified on grounds of incapacitation, deterrence or retribution. Nonetheless, ordering our felony justice system round outliers will make dangerous coverage, particularly because the overwhelming majority of inmates are responsible of significant crimes that pose vital dangers to the American public. Whereas a case for locking up extra such offenders might be made (see above), the argument for a dramatic downscaling of our sentencing insurance policies should deal with the realities of imprisonment.

We Don’t Overpunish

The second competition of the incarceration critics is that we’re imposing an excessive amount of punishment. To stake out this declare they cite the prolonged sentences imposed. However sentences are deceptive as a result of few inmates—solely 20 p.c—serve full phrases and lots of convicted defendants are given no-incarceration sentences. In actual fact, 30 p.c of all convicted felons and 22 p.c of violent offenders are launched with out spending a single day in jail.

For these offenders who’re imprisoned we have to look at the time truly served, not sentences, to correctly gauge the extent of their punishment. It might shock you to be taught that on common, launched prisoners serve solely 2.6 years and the median time served is a mere one yr and 4 months.[4]

Time Served in State Jail by Offense (in Years)

Rape/sexual assault4.26.2
U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Time Served in State Jail, 2016.

As one would anticipate, murderers serve far and away essentially the most time, adopted by rapists. Within the final twenty years these two crimes have seen vital will increase in jail time. However punishments for the opposite offenses within the desk haven’t risen over the past seven a long time. Take theft and assault, for instance. In 1953 and 1964 robbers served a median three years for his or her crimes—just about the identical penalty obtained in 2016. Likewise, these convicted of assault served a median 2 1/Four years in 1964, over ten months greater than the 2016 punishment. [5]

In different phrases, apart from rape and homicide, precise time behind bars is in keeping with historic apply in america. And one can argue that with the decline in the usage of the loss of life penalty, the punishment for murderers has turn out to be extra lenient, not much less.

If the present degree of punishments won’t appear overly harsh to People they nicely would possibly to Europeans, the place jail phrases are far shorter. As the subsequent desk exhibits, the time-served averages for international locations akin to america, apart from murder, are roughly half of ours.

Common Time Served (in Months), by Nation and Crime Sort, 1980-1999

England & Wales88.334.1186.7


Non-US Common82.629.620.811.8
United States113.659.841.623.4
Alfred Blumstein, Michael Tonry, and Asheley Van Ness, “Cross-national Measures of Punitiveness” Crime and Justice 33 (2005): 370.

The subsequent part of this essay will clarify why our punishments are harsher than these of comparable nations.

American Exceptionalism

We in america have some very compelling causes for maintaining individuals in jail—primarily based on circumstances that merely don’t exist in different international locations. After we consider these concerns, america doesn’t look practically as punitive.

Three key influences on American incarceration charges are recidivism, weapons, and homicide. These components generate longer sentences, which in flip elevate charges. The longer prisoners serve (all different issues equal) the upper are incarceration charges over time. It’s because charges are an annual snapshot of the variety of inmates (after taking account of discharges and new entries through the yr), and long-term inmates add to the entire prisoner rely annually till they’re launched.


Repeat offending is a reality of life with criminals, and america had an enormous enhance in offenders between the 1970s and the 1990s. From 1960 to 1990, violent crime on this nation elevated 353 p.c—maybe the most important sustained enhance within the nation’s historical past. This led to an enormous numbers of arrests, convictions and incarcerations, particularly as soon as the felony justice system was toughened up. Over this identical time interval, arrests rose fourfold and jail commitments elevated 350 p.c.[6]

Throughout this high-crime interval, defendants repeated their crimes many occasions, each earlier than they had been imprisoned and after their launch. As soon as caught and convicted these repeaters naturally obtained longer sentences than mere first-offenders, thus boosting imprisonment charges. Take into account state prisoners launched in 1983: Earlier than their stint in jail they’d been arrested for 1.Three million crimes. As soon as set free, 63 p.c had been arrested for brand new crimes inside three years of launch. For prisoners freed in 1994 there had been 4.1 million arrests earlier than imprisonment with 68 p.c rearrested inside three years of launch. In 2005, identical story: 83 p.c rearrested inside 9 years of discharge, accounting for practically two million arrests.[7]

As one would anticipate, lots of of hundreds of ex-prisoners and probationers had been re-incarcerated as a result of new crimes. In some states lately, two-thirds of jail admissions had been parole or probation violators. The most recent knowledge (for 2017) reveals that over 174,000 probationers and parolees did not adjust to the necessities of launch in a single yr and had been remanded to jail. (The determine can be roughly double if we counted launch failures returned to jails in addition to prisons.) A few of these violations had been technical and led to brief sentences which don’t add a lot to imprisonment charges. However many had been new crimes and these repeat offenses generated for much longer sentences than comparable crimes by first-offenders. Apart from the seriousness of the crime, nothing impacts sentencing severity greater than the felony historical past of the defendant.[8]

The post-60s crime tsunami led a number of states to undertake or beef up their repeat offender legal guidelines, which elevated sentences for recidivating defendants. The goals had been combined: incapacitating harmful repeaters, deterring others from committing crimes, and suitably punishing incorrigibles. Whatever the legislative intent, the consequence was to lift incarceration charges.

In all probability the perfect recognized of those legal guidelines is California’s Three Strikes statute, adopted in 1994 (and just lately scaled again). Below this regulation a defendant’s second strike—a felony conviction preceded by one earlier severe or violent felony conviction—resulted in a doubling of the sentence for the second crime (which, earlier than the newest scaleback within the regulation, didn’t must be severe or violent). If a convicted felon had two or extra severe or violent felony convictions on his report the sentence for the third felony can be life imprisonment with a minimal time period of 25 years.

A report on the Three Strikes regulation concluded that it had “a major effect on the make-up of the prison population” in California. From the regulation’s enactment in 1994 to the tip of 2004 the state courts despatched over 80,000 second strikers and seven,500 third strikers to jail. By December 2004, practically 43,000 inmates had been serving time underneath Three Strikes, roughly 26 p.c of the entire jail inhabitants.[9]

Brown and Jolivette (Legislative Analyst’s Workplace), “A Primer: Three Strikes – The Impact After More Than a Decade.”

Had there been no Three Strikes regulation, these offenders would have served a lot shorter sentences and presumably California’s incarceration charges would have been decrease. Thus, by lengthening the phrases of imprisonment, routine offender legal guidelines elevate incarceration charges.

Comparable international locations—Western Europe, Canada and Australia—had far decrease crime charges than america earlier than the 1990s, far fewer offenders, and due to this fact manner fewer recidivists. For homicides, essentially the most correct crime measure, we are able to see that U.S. crime charges had been many multiples of these of the comparable international locations.

Decadal common murder charges per 100,000

Jan Luiten van Zanden, et al. (eds.), How Was Life?: International Nicely-Being Since 1820 (Paris: OECD Publishing, 2014), 150.

The US common for these three a long time is 9 homicides for each 100,000 of the inhabitants, which is 660 p.c of the common for the comparable international locations. As for violent crime normally and property crime, we discover that charges had been dramatically increased in america previous to the 1990s, however that Europe surpassed the U.S. as soon as crime plummeted right here.[10]

Knowledge on European recidivism is spotty, however judging by those that are returned to jail—roughly half of these launched—the chances appear akin to these in america. However, the radically increased crime charges in america earlier than the 1990s would have produced many extra prisoners and lots of extra repeat prisoners. The upshot is that recidivism helped make our incarceration charges considerably increased than these of the comparable international locations.[11]

Gun Crimes and Homicide

The second cause for increased incarceration charges in america is the widespread use of weapons in crimes. Sentences are lengthened for crimes dedicated with weapons, which provides to incarceration charges. Such will increase are justified by the worry that gun crimes create together with the risks of sufferer loss of life or severe harm.

Many elevated penalties for gun crimes are hidden as a result of they’re inbuilt to the definitions of the offenses themselves. Theft legal guidelines are instance. In New York State, as an example, first diploma theft, a “B” felony carrying a sentence of 5 to 25 years in jail, is outlined as forcible stealing whereas armed with a lethal weapon or when displaying a loaded firearm able to being fired. Theft within the third diploma in contrast, which doesn’t contain a weapon, is a “D” felony which carries a lesser 2-7 yr sentence.

Along with the legal guidelines through which gun use is a component of the crime, forty-four states supplied, beginning within the 1970s, when crime started to soar, sentencing enhancements for felonies dedicated with lethal weapons. Most states added a one, two or three yr necessary sentence to the penalty for the underlying felony; a considerable quantity imposed a compulsory 5 years or extra.[12]

Western Europe, Canada and Australia have far fewer weapons and, in contrast with america, far fewer crimes dedicated with firearms. From 2000 to 2012 there have been an estimated 1,500 gun homicides per yr in all of Europe, round 20 p.c of whole homicides. For a comparable interval there have been practically 12,000 annual gun homicides in america, eight occasions as many as Europe, and weapons had been liable for 67 p.c of all killings. In 1990, a peak yr for homicide right here, the Western European firearm murder fee was a mere 0.53 per 100,000. The US fee was 5.57 per 100,000—ten and one-half occasions increased.[13]

Not solely do we now have enhanced penalties for firearm crimes, however the prepared availability of weapons in america helps preserve our homicide charges excessive. It’s, fairly merely, simpler to kill individuals, and to kill extra individuals, with a firearm than a knife or another weapon requiring hand-to-hand wrestle with the sufferer. This helps clarify why the latest FBI tally revealed that 73 p.c of murders in america had been carried out with firearms, nearly seven occasions the quantity slain by knives.[14] Since, as we noticed, murderers serve exceptionally lengthy sentences—fifteen years on common—this additionally drives up incarceration charges.[15]


So, is america the incarceration nation? In comparison with Europe, Canada and Australia the sincere reply is “yes—but with good reason.”


[1] I’ll talk about prisons on this essay, not jails. The talk over incarceration in jails raises necessary points, however addressing them would make this essay too lengthy.

[2] State prisons home over 88 p.c of all inmates. See U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Prisoners in 2017 (2019).

[3] Eighteen p.c are in for property crimes, together with housebreaking and theft. Fifteen p.c dedicated drug crimes, however solely 3.5 p.c of the drug sentences had been for mere possession. The remainder of the inmate inhabitants, 12 p.c, is serving time for public order crimes, together with unlawful gun possession and drunk driving. Ibid.

[4] U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Time Served in State Jail, 2016. By definition, half of all time-served quantities are increased than the median and half are decrease. The median is most well-liked to the imply or common when the latter is skewed by excessive or low outliers, reminiscent of unusually lengthy or brief sentences.

[5] Margaret Werner Cahalan, Historic Corrections Statistics in america, 1850–1984 (1986), desk 3-25.

[6] Barry Latzer, The Rise and Fall of Violent Crime in America (New York: Encounter Books, 2016), pp. 110-18.

[7] U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, “2018 Update on Prisoner Recidivism: A 9-Year Follow-up Period (2005-2014)” (2018); U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 1994” (2002); U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 1983” (1989).

[8] On failures returned to jails, see U.S. Division of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Prisoners in 2017 (2019), desk 7. A Pew research discovered that 43.Three p.c of prisoners launched in 41 states in 2004 had been returned to their cells inside three years. Roughly half of those (21 p.c) had been for technical violations and half (22.Three p.c) for brand new crimes. Pew Heart on the States, State of Recidivism: The Revolving Door of America’s Prisons (Washington, DC: 2011). Lastly, a research of convictions in massive city counties discovered that roughly half of violent offenders with no prior convictions had been sentenced to jail, whereas round 70 p.c of these with a number of priors obtained jail sentences. Amongst non-violent offenders with no priors round one-quarter had been imprisoned, however roughly 55 p.c of these with a number of prior felonies had been despatched to jail. U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Felony Defendants in Massive City Counties, 2009 – Statistical Tables (2013), 32.

[9] Brian Brown and Greg Jolivette (The Legislative Analyst’s Workplace), “A Primer: Three Strikes – The Impact After More Than a Decade.”

[10] Paolo Buonanno, et al., “Crime in Europe and the United States: Dissecting the ‘Reversal of Misfortunes’,” Financial Coverage 26, no. 67 (2011): 350-52. Europe on this research included Austria, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and the UK.

[11] Ian O’Donnell, Eric B. Baumer, and Nicola Hughes, “Recidivism in the Republic of Ireland,” Criminology and Legal Justice 8, no. 2 (2008): 123-46. Whereas the Pew research, cited above, discovered a 43 p.c re-imprisonment fee, different research discovered charges as excessive as 51 p.c and 52 p.c. Ibid., desk 2. Re-arrest charges are after all a lot increased than re-imprisonment charges. As famous above, 83 p.c of launched prisoners are re-arrested in america.

[12] Thomas B. Marvell and Carlisle E. Moody, “The Impact of Enhanced Prison Terms for Felonies Committed with Guns,” Criminology, no. 33, no. 2 (1995): 259-60. This research discovered that gun sentence enhancement legal guidelines didn’t enhance jail admissions or jail populations, however it didn’t discover that such legal guidelines didn’t enhance sentences or time served.

[13] Nils Duquet and Maarten Van Alstein, Firearms and Violent Deaths in Europe: An Exploratory Evaluation of the Linkages Between Gun Possession, Firearms Laws and Violent Demise (Brussels, Belgium: Flemish Peace Institute, 2015), p. 25; Facilities for Illness Management and Prevention, Nationwide Important Statistics System, 2001-2012.

[14] FBI, Crime in america 2018, desk 20.

[15] Fourteen p.c of state prisoners had been sentenced for homicide/manslaughter, however these crimes accounted for under 2.Three p.c of violent index crime arrests. U.S. Division of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Prisoners in 2017 (2019), 15; FBI, Crime in america 2018, desk 29. This means that whereas homicide doesn’t happen ceaselessly the lengthy sentences imposed produce a excessive proportion of jail inmates.