The other day, I came across an article about Jeff Smith, a former Missouri state senator who was recently released from a 1-year stint in federal prison. Years earlier during a failed congressional run, Smith’s campaign violated election law by sending out anonymous postcards attacking his political opponent. When the violation surfaced years later, Smith was caught on tape conspiring to cover it up.
Not to make light of election law, but a year in prison for conspiracy to cover up postcards? Even if the punishment were fair to Smith and his family, is prison really the best use of tax dollars? Each federal inmate costs tax payers about $29,000 a year. Wouldn’t a suspension from elected office and a monetary fine have been a more suitable punishment?
It all got me to wondering about the U.S. incarceration system. It’s well known that the U.S. locks up a larger share of its population than most other countries, but just how much more?
The U.S. prison population is 3x the size of all other developed countries combined
This map shows the prison populations in the world’s 42 advanced economies (as defined by the C.I.A. World Factbook).
Click on the image to view the map in higher resolution
As the map above shows, the U.S. has over 3x as many prisoners as the rest of the world’s advanced economies combined. And the picture looks even more extreme when you factor in population size.
The 42 countries shown in the map have a combined population of just over 1 billion, of which the U.S. makes up about one-third. That puts the United States’ incarceration rate over 6x as high as the rest of the developed world. No other advanced economy even comes close.
Prison populations and incarceration rates around the world
The U.S. has a much higher incarceration rate than other developed counties, but how does it stack up globally?
Worldwide, the United States’ prison population of 2.2 million is higher than any other country. China is a not-too-distant second with 1.6 million prisoners. After that, no other country is even in the ballpark.
The U.S. incarceration rate, 693 prisoners per 100,000 people, is #2 in the world. The only country with a higher incarceration rate is the tiny island nation of Seychelles, population 89,000.
If you’d like go through the data yourself, click the link below to expand a table showing prison population figures for all countries, data courtesy of World Prison Brief.
|Location||Prison Population||Prisoners Per 100,000 People|
|United Kingdom: England & Wales||85540||147|
|Democratic Republic of Congo||20550||29|
|Puerto Rico (USA)||12327||350|
|Ivory Coast (Cote d'Ivoire)||12147||56|
|United Arab Emirates||11193||229|
|Papua New Guinea||4864||63|
|Trinidad and Tobago||3700||272|
|Republic of Guinea||3110||26|
|Bosnia and Herzegovina: Federation||1722||73|
|Northern Ireland (U.K.)||1460||78|
|Cape Verde (Cabo Verde)||1434||286|
|Bosnia and Herzegovina: Republika Srpska||877||67|
|French Guiana (France)||791||298|
|Central African Republic||764||16|
|Timor-Leste (formerly East Timor)||581||50|
|Virgin Islands (USA)||577||542|
|Samoa (formerly Western Samoa)||501||258|
|French Polynesia (France)||456||160|
|New Caledonia (France)||445||168|
|St. Vincent and the Grenadines||412||378|
|Antigua and Barbuda||387||418|
|St. Kitts and Nevis||334||607|
|Bermuda (United Kingdom)||230||354|
|Cayman Islands (United Kingdom)||224||369|
|American Samoa (USA)||214||382|
|Sao Tome e Principe||178||87|
|Northern Mariana Islands (USA)||175||267|
|Sint Maarten (Netherlands)||161||347|
|Virgin Islands (United Kingdom)||119||425|
|Isle of Man (United Kingdom)||80||92|
|Gibraltar (United Kingdom)||52||158|
|Anguilla (United Kingdom)||46||307|
|Cook Islands (New Zealand)||25||109|
|Faeroe Islands (Denmark)||11||23|
|Holy See (Vatican)||0||0|
Does the United States’ high incarceration reduce crime?
Not much, if at all.
That’s the finding of a report released last year by the NYU Brennan Center. The study concluded that in general, higher incarceration rates do reduce crime, but the effect is diminishing.
In the 1990’s, rising incarceration accounted for approximately 6 percent of the reduction in property crime during that period. In the 2000’s, incarceration rates continued to rise, but their effect on crime had diminished, accounting for just one-fifth of one percent of the reduction in property crime seen that decade.
For violent crime, the report found that higher incarceration had no observable effect in the 1990’s or in the 2000’s.
How do these findings from the Brennan Center compare with the results of other studies?
The table below shows the results from 7 other studies on increased incarceration’s impact on crime (including one from Steven Levitt of Freakonomics fame). At the high end of the estimates, only 4% of the reduction in violent crime and 2% of the reduction in property crime are attributed to increased incarceration.
“Table 5 summarizes past findings of national empirical studies on incarceration’s effect on crime along with the Brennan Center findings. Each study used data through the listed year to estimate the “elasticity” of crime with respect to incarceration (i.e. the percentage crime changes when incarceration changes by one percent). Simply put, the elasticity measures how incarceration affects crime. The authors applied previous studies’ elasticity estimates to updated crime and incarceration data through 2013 to impute incarceration’s effect on the drop in crime in the 1990s and the 2000s. These estimates are useful to compare findings across studies.”
The findings are consistent. The rise in incarceration during the 2000’s did little if anything to prevent crime.
However prison is not just about crime deterrence. It serves other purposes as well, such as rehabilitation.
Are U.S. prisons effective at rehabilitating prisoners?
- 43% of former inmates are arrested within a year of release.
- By year three, 68% have been arrested at least once.
- Only 23% of released prisoners make it five years without being arrested.
Why do so many former prisoners return to crime?
One obvious contributor is the difficulty in finding a job for someone with a criminal record. Often employers will ask about criminal history in a pre-employment screener, effectively disqualifying them from the start. Alhough doing so is now banned in some states.
A less well known cause are the fees that are often assessed against convicted criminals related to their incarceration, known as legal financial obligations, which compound their financial struggles upon release. Former inmates may leave prison owing $10’s of thousands to the state, with the threat of being sent back to prison if they don’t pay.
If the goal of rehabilitating prisoners is to prevent them from returning to a life of crime, releasing them deep in debt and poorly equipped to find a job hardly seems like smart policy.
Who’s interests are served by high incarceration?
Not only do the United States’ high incarceration rates not deter crime or rehabilitate prisoners, they are also very expensive. The corrections system costs nearly $80 billion a year in federal, state, and local tax dollars. It would seem the system is not only inhumane, it is also bad economic policy.
Without speculating about the causes behind America’s rising incarceration, it’s still interesting to look at who’s incentives the system serves.
Private prison operators
One group that clearly benefits from more imprisonment are companies that operate private prisons.
As reported by ProPublica, there are currently about 130 private prisons in the U.S., which house about 157,000 prisoners. That’s a small percentage of the country’s total prison population, but it’s still big business. The two largest private prison companies, Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group, generated a combined revenue of $3.3 billion in 2010.
According to the Washington Post, the two companies have spend $25 million in lobbying dollars since 1989 and an additional $10 million on campaign contributions.
A while back, a friend of mine mentioned a company that holds a monopoly on the prison commissary supply market, a company he claimed was owned by the Bush Family.
The company is called Keefe Commissary. It’s not clear to me whether the Bush association is true or just a rumor, but a search in Google does turn up some red flags about the company’s pricing:
- a long list of contracts that were awarded “no-bid” or without competition
- involvement in a kick-back scandal (though Keefe was not accused of any wrongdoing)
- and lots of unconfirmed accounts of overcharging prisoners for commissary items.
For example, see the [unsubstantiated] comment below from a 2013 reddit AMA post:
Keefe’s commissary prices are available for many prisons on the Bureau of Prisons website. A quick spot check backs up the claim that their ramen noodles are indeed overpriced.
More about my background
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