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Is America Over-Incarcerated?

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That's one of the big questions, if not the biggest, in the national debate about sentencing "reform."

My own view is that it's a misdirected question because it focuses on the wrong population. The people who mainly deserve our concern are the huge, law-abiding majority, not the tiny minority who, because of their own greed-driven choices, are residing in jail.  And the law-abiding majority is better off today by far than it was a generation ago, in significant part because we've incarcerated more of the bad guys for longer and thus reduced crime victimization.

Indeed, as Charles Lane of the Washington Post points out, much of the over-incarceration narrative is behind the times and simply mistaken.  I found this point particularly illuminating:

In an oft-quoted but empty phrase, the [National Research Council] report declares the growth of incarceration in the United States "historically unprecedented and internationally unique."

The same might be said for the United States itself. This is the only nation on earth with more than 100 million people, effective, democratically accountable law enforcement and a lot of crime.

If we released all drug offenders, the incarceration rate would still be much higher than that of Europe. Ditto if we released all minorities. Nor are U.S. racial disparities unique. Canadian statistics show that, for unknown reasons, the black share of Canada's prison population is three times that of the general population -- the same as in the United States.


Lane's article is, for the reliably pro-defendant WaPo, a surprisingly fresh and balanced look at the issue, well worth the read.


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Not surprising for Lane. He has been writing good stuff at the WaPo for some time now.

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