Cross-National Comparisons in Incarceration Rates

Every time I hear or read about a numerical fact, I always ask myself “is this high, low, average” for this particular phenomenon.  In order to answer this question, I’m required to make at least an implicit comparison.  So when I read today that for the first time ever, 1 in 100 American adults is incarcerated, I wondered how that compared to other countries.  The information is not hard to find.  Here’s a chart for your perusal.  What do you think accounts for the variation in incarceration rates across countries?

Here are some snippets from ABC News:

incarceration-oecd.jpg For the first time in U.S. history, more than one of every 100 adults is in jail or prison, according to a new report documenting America’s rank as the world’s No. 1 incarcerator. It urges states to curtail corrections spending by placing fewer low-risk offenders behind bars.

Using state-by-state data, the report says 2,319,258 Americans were in jail or prison at the start of 2008 one out of every 99.1 adults. Whether per capita or in raw numbers, it’s more than any other nation.

The report, released Thursday by the Pew Center on the States, said the 50 states spent more than $49 billion on corrections last year, up from less than $11 billion 20 years earlier. The rate of increase for prison costs was six times greater than for higher education spending, the report said.

The steadily growing inmate population “is saddling cash-strapped states with soaring costs they can ill afford and failing to have a clear impact either on recidivism or overall crime,” the report said.

Susan Urahn, managing director of the Pew Center on the States, said budget woes are pressuring many states to consider new, cost-saving corrections policies that might have been shunned in the recent past for fear of appearing soft on crime.

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