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Crime & Punishment in the U.S. and Europe

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This post is by Julia Wobbe, a student at California State University, Sacramento.
There has been much controversy about the incarceration rate in the United States, which is much higher than in European countries. It is informative to consider these differences in the context of how comparative crime rates have changed over time. The European Sourcebook of Crime and Criminal Justice, (2nd ed. 2003) and (3rd ed. 2006), reveal the rate of violent crimes and the prison population rate. United States data are given by the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports and the Bureau of Justice Statistics website.

When comparing crime rates with other countries, it is important to make sure that the data is compatible; thus we compared the standard definitions of the European Sourcebook to the definitions from Uniform Crime Reports. The standard definitions of offenses in the European Sourcebook were devised to allow national correspondents to provide the necessary data for their countries and to specify whether or not they meet the standard definition. The standard definition of robbery was among the few violent offenses that was met by most of the European countries. The definition of assault, for example, was much broader in England than in the larger continental countries. Rape statistics are also problematic to compare across countries, as cultural differences may produce widely varying reporting rates. For these reasons, this analysis compares robbery rates only.

Four European countries were selected for this comparison: France, Germany, Italy, UK: England and Wales. (For crime statistics, England and Wales are one unit. Scotland and Northern Ireland are separate.) After compiling the data of interest, robbery rates were compared between the countries over a time span of nine years--from 1995 to 2003. The chart consisted of robbery rates per 100,000 population and provided some interesting results. It revealed that in 1995, United States had a much higher robbery rate than any of the European countries. However, while the robbery rate in most European countries was increasing, the robbery rate in the United States was decreasing. The table below the chart shows incarceration rates per 100,000 population among the four European countries and the United States over the same nine years. The table shows that the United States had a much higher incarceration rate than all of the European countries. Amongst the European countries, England and Wales had the highest incarceration rate and the sharpest increase.

RobberyEuropeUS1995_2003sm.jpg


INCARCERATION RATE / 100k
Year
France
Germany
Italy
UK: England
& Wales
US
1995
89
83
83
98
601
1996
89
87
85
106
618
1997
88
90
88
118
648
1998
86
97
86
125
669
1999
85
98
92
123
691
2000
82
97
96
125
684
2001
79
96
99
127
685
2002
90
91
98
135
701
2003
96
99
98
140
712

While the incarceration rate is much higher in the United States than Europe, it is quite plausible that this higher rate is responsible, all or in part, for the very different trend in crime rates. Americans were once in much greater danger of robbery than Europeans, but no longer.

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