In the United States, our incarceration rate is number one among the larger countries (The Seychelles have a slightly higher rate but with many fewer people). So, why does the U.S. have so many people in prison? Are U.S citizens just natural crooks?
And should we care? Well, the greater the number of people there are in jail, the fewer there are paying taxes and participating in constructive contributions to society. In addition, a person in jail costs the community/state/federal government from $70,000/year to $200,000/year. Personally, I would much prefer to use that kind of money on improving education, infrastructure, child care, and other public benefits. Remember that, even though there is no such thing as a "free lunch", we SHOULD be able to determine how our tax money is used.
The reality is that the incarceration rate varies for all countries depending on various factors -- some of which fluctuate because of political and economic events. In the U.S., we had a very low rate of imprisonment in the 1930s and 1940s -- possibly because the U.S. economy could not support that many people in the prisons so it was primarily the violent offenders that remained there. In the 1960s, the U.S. had a "world average" of imprisonment and it has continued to rise until, today, it is about the highest in the world with around 700 people in prison for every 100,000 citizens. In contrast, Cuba has about 500, Russia has about 450, Costa Rica has about 350, and the United Kingdom has about 150.
People are basically the same all around the world. Some are jerks. Some are criminals. Some are saints. Some are lazy. Some are hard-working. Some are poor. Some are rich. Some are smart. Some are not smart. And so forth. External aspects don't make much difference -- skin color, gender, religion, nationality, et cetera. There are some cultural influences on how important studying may be or how much physical activity is praised and rewarded but, at heart, everyone is in the same human pool.
So, why does the U.S. presently have such a high prison rate? A large part of it has been the slide of income inequality as (true in every country) there are a higher percentage of poor people in prisons than there are of rich people (once again, NOT because poor people are more likely to be criminals). Keep in mind that a "crime" means that a law has been determined to have been broken. Thus, something may be a "crime" in one country, or by certain people, or at a certain time -- and NOT a "crime" in a different country, or when done by different people, or at a different time.
But, specifically, there are a number of factors (not firmly listed in order -- but perhaps in order of most easily changed):
- For-profit Prisons. This makes absolutely no sense within a capitalistic society. Capitalism operates (loosely) on Supply and Demand as well as profit margins. In order to increase profits per inmate, a prison will work to reduce expenditures which is likely to increase the chance of the criminal coming back. Also, it is to their interest to INCREASE the number of criminals and they do this by heavily lobbying for increased sentences for a greater number of newly created "crimes". A profitable prison means a greater and greater number of criminals every year.
- The Pilgrim Effect and Vice Crimes. The Pilgrims were a small group of settlers within the United States -- very small in number in proportion to all of the other immigrants (all in the U.S. are immigrants -- even First Nation). But their effect on the national psyche is enormous. Or, at least, that is the way I refer to it.
The Pilgrims felt that they should control how every individual behaved and thought on a daily and minute-to-minute basis. Politicians in the U.S. make use of this desire to control others by creating laws (and, when laws are created, so are crimes and criminals) that are aimed at the thoughts and behaviors of citizens THAT DO NOT AFFECT OTHERS. These are also called "vice" laws. There are lots of them -- and a huge difference between the U.S. and other countries in longer governed countries. Laws about drugs (including alcohol), gambling, sexual behavior, and so forth.
One problem with these laws is they do NOT work. The "vices" continue to happen. Secondly, they do succeed in increasing the profits of those who are involved with these activities -- causing additional corruption and organized, highly profitable, criminal businesses both within and without the U.S. The U.S. attempted "Prohibition" of alcohol with the 18th Amendment. After giving the Mafia, and other organized crime, a huge boost in the U.S with attendant increases in murder and other violent crimes, the 21st Amendment reversed it but much of the damage to the country remained.
A side-effect of "vice" laws and increasing their profit margins is that people who feel the need or desire for these substances/behaviors have a greater need for money to participate. This causes a multiplying effect when robberies, assaults, and other property crimes are done to be able to afford the law-enhanced prices.
- Income Inequality. There are a higher percentage of poor people in prison than there are of rich people. Some of this is similar to the predicament of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman in the recent movie version) in Les Miserables -- turning to crime to feed their families when they are desperate. By definition, the rich are almost never desperate except in non-economic situations.
Secondly, most of the laws are written BY the rich and FOR the rich. In the federal government, most members are millionaires and it is unlikely to be coincidental that the longest sentences and greatest number of "crimes" are created for actions more likely to be done by the poor and the lightest sentences and fewest "crimes" are created for actions more likely to be done by the rich. The income discrepancy lessens as one moves down to state and local levels but still exists and makes a huge difference.
- Recidivism and Employment. When "Antman" gets out of prison for a non-violent, capital property crime he gets (with his high-tech degree) a service job from which he is fired once they find out he was convicted of a "felony". While this may be a bit out-of-place (high-tech people are less likely to be discriminated against) the general attitude, and situation, is NOT. It is as if a "felon" is given a lifetime sentence as they are forever actively prevented from being a positive economic or societal force. They may literally have "no choice" but to get sent back to being taken care of in jail.
In addition to permanent economic retribution, ex-prisoners (especially from the for-profit prisons) may not have improved their ability to get a job (assuming anyone will let them have one) and be sent back to the same economic and societal environment that left them feeling that "crime" was their best option.
- Racism. J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI from 1935 to 1972, was a fervent racist and implemented dual-prong attacks to help keep blacks, in particular, from achieving greater opportunities. He instigated additional drug sales into poorer neighborhoods while, at the same time, blackmailing and pressuring Congress into passing laws making use of those same drugs to be a crime. What didn't use to be a crime -- now was. And what didn't use to be a problem in those neighborhoods -- now was.
Prior to the various Civil Rights laws and, once again, since the Supreme Court decided (on June 25, 2013) to remove the ability to enforce many of those Civil Rights laws, many laws were put into place where they applied ONLY to people of certain definitions -- usually of certain skin colors or of more recent non-Anglo heritage.
- Unequal Enforcement. Related to income inequality in that there are different laws defined to be more likely oriented towards the rich as to the poor. However, even within the same category of laws, certain groups are favored over other groups. These groups include "whites", the rich, males, and other majority (or formerly majority)-oriented groups.
A poor person may get 10 years of prison for a $10,000 theft. Meanwhile, a rich person may get 6 months probation for stealing $10 million from a group of people. The punishments are actually reverse proportionate. Discrepancies get even greater when corporate crime is committed, with no one actually getting punished at all (and only a mild discomfort when any fines are passed along to the employees and stockholders). This is a broken Justice System.
Note that, in the United States, there is the notion of a "jury of our peers". This should mean that poor people should be judged by poor people and rich people judged by rich people -- but doesn't always quite mean that. However, poor people are more likely to be harsh with other poor people. I believe it is an attitude of "I had to struggle so hard to survive without having to commit crimes, how dare you take an easier route".
- Alternate Punishments. Of course, one method of reducing the number of people in prison is to have alternate punishments. It is possible to have periods of public work labor. It is possible to have a separate "withholding" of parts of a paycheck(s) to pay back damages or theft losses.
The idea of alternate punishments is to address the damage(s) caused by the "crime" while retaining the ability for people to continue to contribute to society. This is normally only possible for non-violent crime. In some countries, prison is avoided by increasing the frequency of the death penalty -- which I don't recommend because it is so difficult (impossible) to correct mistakes (which do happen on a regular basis).
In summation, the U.S. could quickly reduce the number of people in prison. Eliminate for-profit prisons. Eliminate laws that are about "crimes" that only affect the individual -- the "vice" crimes. AND make it retroactive such that all who have been convicted under such laws are released and their records eliminated. Make it a requirement to have a reason-produced court order to obtain criminal records of job applicants.
Other aspects of imprisonment imply a direct change to culture and society that may end up taking many years -- but still are worthy of effort for change.