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Unduly and Harshly Punitive?

Theodore Dalrymple has this article in the City Journal, contending that popular view that the nation's criminal justice system is unduly and harshly punitive is wrong. The twist is that the nation in question is Britain, not the United States.

Among other points, Dalrymple notes, as I have many times on this blog, that the popular metric of "incarceration rate" as a measure of "harshness" is wrong. I call this the Fallacy of the Irrelevant Denominator. The correct denominator is not the general population but a measure of crime. Getting the right measure is the tricky part.
Dalrymple puts it this way:

In fact, it is my experience of speaking in Britain to intelligent and educated audiences, or in private conversation with intelligent and educated people, that no one is unaware of this statistic [prisoners per 100k population], or something like it, and the reality that it supposedly adumbrates; but it is also my experience that no one is ever able to say what is wrong with it, and why it is fatuous. I have never heard or read any critical comment upon it.

But it is easy to prove that the statistic is fatuous, designed more to stir emotion than to stimulate reflection. A simple thought experiment should suffice. Suppose a country existed in which there were only a single prisoner; but suppose also that no crime had ever been committed in that country. The existence of a single prisoner would be an injustice, notwithstanding the country's extremely low rate of imprisonment.

It is obvious, then, that the raw rates of imprisonment, uncorrected for age (an important correction because young adolescent and adult males are far more likely to perform acts leading to imprisonment than are other demographic groups), cannot tell us much about the relative severity or leniency of criminal-justice systems. And when we make a proper comparison, we see that the allegedly punitive nature of the British criminal-justice system--relative to other systems--becomes a chimera.

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