America: World leader in incarceration

US prisoners exceed 2.3 million, or equivalent to the entire population of Latvia. Is anyone discussing this?

Only people like Albert Hunt of Bloomberg, it seems, are prepared to draw attention to America's huge prison population and the damage it wreaks on society there. None of the presidential contenders raises the topic, a solution to which is essential. It almost never comes up for discussion.

Locking people away from families, so that one in nine young blacks are raised with one parent absent in prison, will hardly enable the young to appreciate the value of family life. Yet 60% of all prisoners are African-American or hispanic in a country where those minorities account for less than one third of all people. And it costs something like US$50,000 per year to jail someone. Surely that money could be better spent?

America has locked up more people than the 35 top European countries combined, writes Hunt, who goes on to mention that the US accounts for a "quarter of the planet's prisoners". 

The following list is one in which, I suggest, a country would not wish to rank highly. Incarceration rates per 100,000 population in selected countries are:

United States 743 (world rank No.1)
Russian Federation 550 (world rank No.3)
Barbados 354 (world rank No.20)
South Africa 316 (world rank No.31)
Latvia 314 (world rank No.33)
Iran 291 (world rank No.38)
Brazil 253 (world rank No.50)
Mexico 200 (world rank No.64)
New Zealand 199 (world rank No.65)
Columbia 181 (world rank No.73)
Jamaica 174 (world rank No.78)
Turkey 168 (world rank No.80)
Spain 155 (world rank No.89)
Argentina 151 (world rank No.95)
Malaysia 138 (world rank No.105)
Australia 133 (world rank No.111) 
China 122 (world rank No.117)
Kenya 120 (world rank No.122) 
Canada 117 (world rank No.128)
Italy 110 (world rank No.133)
Philippines 110 (world rank No.133)
France 109 (world rank No.136)
Netherlands 94 (world rank No.148)
United Kingdom 92 (world rank No.152)
Germany 87 (world rank No.155)
Egypt 81 (world rank No.160) 
Sweden 78 (world rank No.163)
Indonesia 59 (world rank No.185) 
Japan 58 (world rank No.188)
Syria 58 (world rank No.188)
Ghana 56 (world rank No.191)
India 31 (world rank No.208)
Nigeria 31 (world rank No.208) 

Source: World Prison Brief of the International Centre for Prison Studies, a partner of the University of Essex.

Long ago in America there must have been a policy of sweeping away problems out of sight. But finding a solution appears never to have been of paramount concern. As long as the US economy grew, the cost of incarcerating unsocial elements was sustainable.

Now that debt-laden America struggles to balance its books, perhaps politicians will rethink this damaging social policy. It really can't be productive to sustain such a system, either for the district left bereft of its adults, or for the prisoners themselves. Prisons are crowded, violent and dangerous. Recividism remains "stubbornly high" maintains the Pew Trust, an NGO.

So the policy is failing. Surely the time is now to correct it? A strategy of engagement, education, and inner city development must surely be preferable to the persistent drain on the average state's coffers of something like US$50bn per year spent on corrections.

As Hunt points out, the jail population remains high because longer prison terms are awarded, not because crime rates have soared. In fact, American crime rates are dropping. Quoting Stephen Mauer of the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy group, the New York Times reported three years ago "burglars in the United States serve an average of 16 months in prison ... compared with 5 months in Canada and 7 months in England."

Is Barack Obama up to raising the issue during the election campaign? Or is the prospect of releasing ex-cons onto the streets too much for America to bear?

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