The United States, the leader of the free world, turns out to be the country with the biggest percentage of its population incarcerated. Statistics from the International Center for Prison Studies reveal that 716 out of 100,000 people in the United States are currently imprisoned.†Such statistics make Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to address chronic and extensive overcrowding in prisons via drug sentencing reforms all the more compelling.
As Holder said last week while addressing the American Bar Association, he is in favor of having those convicted of low-level offenses enter drug treatment and community service programs. He also seeks to expand a prison program to allow for compassionate release of some elderly, non-violent offenders.†”We need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter and rehabilitate – not merely to convict, warehouse and forget,” said Holder.
According to advance 2012 counts from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the U.S. prison population was 1,571,013, a decline for the third year in a row. In 2010, 2,270,142 people were imprisoned across the country. But the numbers of those incarcerated swell when including statistics from the city and local level; the total is then more than two million.
What is even more disturbing is that the countries that incarcerate almost as many people as the United States have very different records on human rights and democratic institutions, the chart on the Huffington Post shows. Number 2 on the list is St. Kitts and Neves. Number 5 is Rwanda, number 6 Cuba and number 7, Russia.
At 223 per 100,000, Israel is the second in incarceration rates among industrialized nations.
Massive Overcrowding in Prisons
Federal prisons are now operating at nearly 40 percent over capacity. Almost half of the 219,000 inmates have been incarcerated for drug-related crimes; many have substance use disorders. In state prisons, about 225,000 people are serving time for drug offenses. At the local level, 9 to 10 million are incarcerated every year.
Rather than constructing and expanding prisons, 17 states have been directing money to programs and services such as treatment and supervision that are designed to reduce the problems of repeat offenders. Kentucky, for instance, has passed legislation that reserves prison sentences for the most serious offenders and redirects resources into community supervision. The state predicts it will reduce its prison population by more than 3,000 over the next 10 years and thereby save more than $400 million.
It is possible that some countries could have higher prison populations than official statistics suggest. The International Center for Prison Studies estimates the prison population of China at 121 per 100,000 people but also notes that it could be 2,300,000. The latter figure would raise the prison population rate to 170 per 100,000 of the national population; the estimated rates for China are based on an estimated national population of 1.35 billion at mid-2012 (from United Nations figures) and sentenced prisoners include inmates only from Ministry of Justice prisons.
Regardless, it at least ironic that an authoritarian society like China with a poor record on human rights and free speech would have a far lower prison rate than the United States. Review of drug-sentencing protocol and prison reform cannot come too soon for this country.
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