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Tuesday, July 27, 2004

the american prison economy

the us department of justice, office of justice programs, bureau of justice statistics has released their latest data on incarceration in the united states. i’m going to talk about this a bit from a purely economic perspective, because it worries me.

The total Federal, State, and local adult correctional population — incarcerated or in the community — grew by 130,700 during 2003 to reach a new high of nearly 6.9 million. About 3.2% of the U.S. adult population, or 1 in every 32 adults, were incarcerated or on probation or parole at
yearend 2003.

with fresh numbers from the department of justice, it just begs for a global comparison. for this, we can turn to the international centre for prison studies.

top ten countries by total number incarcerated:

1 United States of America (2,078,570)
2 China (1,549,000)
3 Russian Federation (846,967)
4 India (313,635)
5 Brazil (308,304)
6 Thailand (213,815)
7 Ukraine (198,386)
8 South Africa (180,952)
9 Mexico (175,253)
10 Iran (163,526)

ok, you might say. not fair. it’s the incarceration rate that is the better comparison:

1 United States of America (.715%)
2 Russian Federation (.584%)
3 Belarus (.554%)
4 Bermuda (UK) (.532%)
5 Palau (.523%)
6 Virgin Islands (USA) (.522%)
7 Cayman Islands (United Kingdom) (.501%)
8 Turkmenistan (c. .489%)
9 Cuba (c. .487%)
10 Belize (.459%)

(china is #105 with .119%)

the bureau of justice statistics report says 3.2% of the adult population is in prison, on parole or on probation. the centre for prison studies cites bureau of prisons data, putting 2,078,570 persons in prison in america (plus another 100,000+ juveniles) out of a population of 290.7 million at mid-year 2003. the difference is the people on probation and parole (plus the difference between the agencies doing the counting).

so why do i bring this up? because if you’re not in the business of building or running prisons, this is “dead weight” in your personal economy. as a nation, this is dead weight on the whole economy. and, as i mentioned just a little while ago, we’re barely prosecuting the criminals we know about.

noticable is that in 1995, .6% of the population was incarcerated, and the trend is pretty steeply up. is this a problem? can america compete in a global economy with that many potentially productive citizens wasting away? does it matter?

today, we’re all criminals. it’s just a matter of how interested the prosecutors get in your case, and, apparently whether they can label you a terrorist. in fact, law enforcement is so busy in this country, we’re letting private industry organizations do a large a lot of enforement on their own – and with former atf personnel for expertise. (i could argue that the riaa got a raw deal in hiring atf people, based on their performance, but that’s another subject).

are americans just naturally more criminal? the british did ship a lot of convicts to north america a couple centuries ago. but that can’t be it. australia, built from the same criminal stock, has an incarceration rate of only .116% (less than china).

and then there’s the human question and political question and other questions that i’m completely ignoring…

update: i screwed up the math on this, converting fom “out of 100,000” to percentages. it’s all fixed now. i’m tired. sorry about that.

posted by roj at 3:04 am