Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Mass Incarceration Myth

By Michael P. Tremoglie

“Salus populi suprema lex esto (Let the safety of the people be the supreme law),”  wrote the Roman orator, constitutionalist, lawyer, politician, and scholar, Cicero in his seminal work De Legibus (About Law).

This precept is one of the first things policymakers in the Roman Republic recalled as they fulfilled their duties. It seems to be one of the first things modern American and Western European policymakers have forgotten. Indeed, the debate, not only in America but in the Western world, centers on the proposition that we incarcerate too many of our citizens. We must therefore search for ways to release them.

A leader of voicing concern that there are too many people in prison worldwide - and especially in the USA - is the Institute for Criminal Policy Research (ICPR), at Birkbeck, University of London. It periodically publishes a compilation of data about the world’s prison population. The author of this tome is, Roy Walmsley, and the book is rather ominously called the, World Prison Population List. The eleventh edition of Walmsley’s opus is similar to the prior editions.

The press releases from Birkbeck are also similar. The first one I received announcing the latest edition said, “ More than 10.35 million people are in prison around the world, new report published by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research shows.”

It goes on to quote Mr. Walmsley, “ “It is of great concern that there are now over 10.35 million people held in penal institutions throughout the world. What is of greater concern is that the world prison population continues to rise, and to rise very sharply in some parts of the world. This should prompt policy makers in all countries to consider what they can do to limit the numbers in custody, given the high costs and disputed efficacy of imprisonment and the fact that prison overcrowding is widespread. The disproportionate rise in the female prison population is particularly shocking.”

The press release then quotes the Co-Director Dr Jessica Jacobson proclaiming,
“This latest edition of the World Prison Population List reveals the size of the worldwide prison population, and how widely prison population rates and trends vary between regions and countries.  Politicians and policy-makers in much of the world are now recognising that continued growth in prison populations simply cannot be sustained. We hope that states and international organisations will work together to reverse this growth and to help to build safer societies through more appropriate use of custody and wider use of its alternatives.”

A second communique was aimed directly at the United States. The foreboding headline was: “United States of America has highest volume of prisoners in the world, new report published by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research shows”

The press release continues, “The new report has revealed the US has 2.2 million prisoners. This means that while it has 4% of the world’s population it has 21% of the world’s prisoners.”

Such language implies there are more people in prison than necessary. Certainly the people who issue this report think it is too high.

My thesis is that we do not know if the amount of people incarcerated in the USA and elsewhere is too high. But since the ICPR says it is I inquired of them what would be the appropriate rate. Quite frankly, the ICPR does not seem to have any proof of the rate is too high. So I inquired of Mr. Walmsley about this. I asked three questions.

1- What does he feel is the appropriate percentage?  

Mr. Walmsley replied, “It is for Americans to decide what the appropriate percentage is, bearing in mind if they wish as one of many factors, knowledge of the situation in other countries.”
2- Why does he think this percentage is correct?

He response was, “The percentage is calculated from official figures.”
3-  How many more crime victims would result from reducing the prison population?

Mr. Walmsley answered, “It’s not possible to give an answer to this.”

Now it is curious to me that if one is going to criticize the amount of people in prison, one should have an idea of how many innocent people will be killed, maimed, raped, injured, robbed, etc., if prison populations are reduced.

But perhaps I am incorrect.


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