The U.S. incarceration rate fell in 2016 to its lowest level in 20 years, according to new data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), the statistical arm of the Department of Justice. Despite the decline, the United States incarcerates a larger share of its population than any other country.
At the end of 2016, there were about 2.2 million people behind bars in the U.S., including 1.5 million under the jurisdiction of federal and state prisons and roughly 741,000 in the custody of locally run jails. That amounts to a nationwide incarceration rate of 860 prison or jail inmates for every 100,000 adults ages 18 and older.
The nation’s incarceration rate peaked at 1,000 inmates per 100,000 adults during the three-year period between 2006 and 2008. It has declined every year since then and is now at its lowest point since 1996, when there were 830 inmates per 100,000 adults.
.Despite these downward trends, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, according to the World Prison Brief, a database maintained by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research at Birkbeck, University of London...The World Prison Brief’s data put the U.S. incarceration rate at 655 inmates per 100,000 people, which is nearly 7% higher than the rate of the next-closest country, El Salvador (614 inmates per 100,000 people), and far higher than the rates of other heavily populated nations, including Russia (415 inmates per 100,000 people) and Brazil (324 per 100,000). Incarceration rates in Western Europe are less than a quarter of the U.S. rate: In England and Wales, there are 142 inmates for every 100,000 people, while France and Germany incarcerate 102 and 77 people, respectively, for every 100,000 residents.Earlier this year, Prof. Bessette wrote:
So, why then are U.S. incarceration rates so much higher than European ones, even adjusting for differences in murder rates? Much of the answer lies in the simple fact that even apart from murder, the United States remains a more violent place than your typical European country...
As the table above shows, as one moves down the list of crimes from most serious to the less serious, the statistical differences between the U.S. and the most populous European nations seem to disappear. Yet, even here there can be real differences in crime seriousness concealed by the overall data. Consider robbery. The reported U.S. rate is about the same as the average for the other countries: almost twice as high as in Germany and Italy but lower than in France and Spain. Yet another source – the Fifth Edition of the European Sourcebook of Crime and Criminal Justice Statistics, Table 188.8.131.52 (downloadable here)—shows for 2011 the rates for robbery with a firearm, widely recognized by policymakers, judges, and others as a more serious crime than unarmed robbery or robbery with a less lethal weapon. FBI data from Crime in the United States, 2011, Table 19, allow a comparison with U.S. rates. Here are the rates (number of crimes reported per 100,000 residents) for robbery with a firearm for 2011: United States, 45.8; Germany, 4.3; France, 10.0; England/Wales, 4.5; and Spain, 4.3. (Italy did not report.) Thus, the U.S. rate was more than ten times higher than that in three of the four reporting European countries, and more than four times higher than in the other. So, just comparing overall robbery rates between the U.S. and European countries would obscure the fact that gun robberies are much more common in the United States. Thus it would not be surprising if compared to European countries the United States had a higher incarceration rate for robbery.
We know then that the United States has many more murders, rapes, and gun robberies per person than European nations. It likely also have more gun assaults. The FBI reports that in 2015 guns were used in 24% of aggravated assaults in the United States. Given how rare gun robberies are in Europe, it would not be surprising if gun assaults are also much less common there than in the United States.
These are compelling reasons why incarceration rates in the United States are considerably higher than in Europe. Nonetheless, it may well be that crime-for-crime, offenders in the United States are somewhat more likely to be sentenced to incarceration or to serve longer behind bars. Yet it is not obvious what the relevance of such a difference would be to American criminal justice policies. Europe has abolished the death penalty, but 31 American states retain it. But this hardly proves that Europe is right and the 31 American states are wrong. More than a few European nations punish murderers much less severely than does the United States. Anders Breivik killed 77 in Norway in 2011 and received a 21-year sentence, which will expire when he is 52 (though a special preventive detention provision of Norwegian law may allow his indefinite confinement if he is judged to be a continuing danger). Volkert van der Graaf assassinated the Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn during a political campaign in 2002 and though found to me of sound mind was sentenced to just 16 years in prison and was then freed after 12. He now lives as a free man in the Netherlands. Such punishments for mass murder and political assassination are inconceivable in the United States, even in the states without the death penalty. I have not heard any responsible public figure in the United States argue that we should take our direction in punishing murderers from Norway and the Netherlands.