Sunday, May 23, 2010

We're Number One! Unfortunately!

I'm unabashed in the love and pride I feel for this country. By this country, I of course mean the good ol' USA. Besides the circumstance of my birth, one feature that warms my heart to this little slice of Earth is its willingness to listen to me. Or at least its willingness to allow me to speak. At least for now.

That's important, because sometimes you have to find a way to tell the one you love that she it is making a big mistake. So here it goes. Wish me luck.

I think we imprison far too many of our fellow countrymen. I think we have too many laws, and we criminalize too many people. And I hate to say this, but we convict way too many people who are actually innocent. We even execute some of them. I know you don't like to hear it, but we need to talk.

I want to talk about the number of people we wrongfully convict. I don't just mean talk about individual cases, here and there. I already do that. What I'm saying here is that I want to talk about the magnitude of the problem. I want to try to quantify it. If our wrongful conviction rate is a mere 0.027%, as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia claimed in Kansas v. Marsh, then I'm out of line.

If, on the other hand, our wrongful conviction rate is closer to 10%, which I fear, then we must talk. We absolutely must talk.

Over the next few months, I will be posting a sequence of articles dealing with various ways of estimating our rate of wrongful conviction. In each case, I will multiply that rate times the number of people we have incarcerated to arrive at the number of people who may be now serving time for a crime they did not commit. A starting point then, is to get a sense of how many people we have in prison.

I turned as usual to the source of all knowledge: the internet. Not only that, I took the easy way out for this tenuous first step: I checked with Wikipedia. The numbers and quotes immediately below came from the Wikipedia article. Their numbers came, in turn, from the U.S. Bureau of Justice.
American prisons and jails held 2,304,115 inmates in 2008. Approximately one in every 18 men in the United States is behind bars or being monitored.

70% of prisoners in the United States are non-whites.
In recent decades the U.S. has experienced a surge in its prison population, quadrupling since 1980, partially as a result of mandated sentences that came about during the "war on drugs." Violent crime and property crime have declined since the early 1990s. 
Nearly one million of those incarcerated in state and federal prisons, as well as local jails, are serving time for comitting non-violent crimes.
About 10.4% of all black males in the United States between the ages of 25 and 29 were sentenced and in prison, compared to 2.4% of Hispanic males and 1.3% of white males.
The United States has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world at 754 persons in prison or jail per 100,000 (as of 2008).
That last one hurts. (They all hurt, actually.) You can compare our rate of 754 convicts per 100,000 countrymen against the rate for other countries here. I'll save you the trouble. At 152, England has a rate just one fifth of ours. Australia, which served as a penal colony for England, has a rate of 129. Romania, formerly behind the Iron Curtain, has a rate of 125. France comes in at 96, Belgium at 93, Germany at 88, Denmark at 63.

Maybe it's unfair to point out our incarceration rate is five to ten times that of other "westernized" countries. Maybe we'll do better if we compare ourselves to Africa. Let's see.

Okay, we're not a whole lot worse than Rwanda. They have a rate 593, so we're only 33% worse than Rwanda. But South Africa, not known as a model of restraint when arresting its citizenry, has a rate well less than half of ours. Zimbabwe comes in at 136, Ethiopia at 98, Ghana at 59, Nigeria at 26.

I guess that didn't work out. Maybe the Middle East will provide a more favorable comparison, what with all the turmoil there and Sharia law and everything. Surely they must be doing worse. Hang on, I'll check it out.

Let's see. Israel has a rate of 326, but they're kind of a "westernized" country, so we can ignore them. (We already know we don't fare well against "westernized" countries.) I'll keep scrolling down the list. Here we go. Iran comes in at 222, Libya at 209, Saudi Arabia at 178, Kuwait 130, Iraq 93, Yemen 83, Pakistan 55, Afghanistan, 44. Crap!

There's stil hope. Surely we can't be worse than the communist states. I'll check.


Russia is 626, Cuba is 531. China is 119.

Okay, that does it. Time to turn to Uncle Cecil to get The Straight Dope on this issue. Just as I suspected, the numbers for China are, well, suspect. Uncle Cecil tells it like it is.
China, though . . . well, 1.5 million prisoners is just the official figure. Chinese human rights activist Harry Wu, who spent 19 years in forced-labor camps for criticizing the government, estimates that 16 to 20 million of his countrymen are incarcerated, including common criminals, political prisoners, and people in involuntary job placements. Even ten million prisoners would make for a rate of 793 per 100,000. 
Another nation suspected to have a lot of prisoners is North Korea. The country isn't listed in ICPS statistics, but a recent NBC News investigation put the number of political prisoners alone at 200,000, or more than 900 per 100,000. 
Great, you're thinking. The only countries that might put away more of their own people than we do are both notorious authoritarian states.

So there's a chance we're not number one. There's a chance we're not as bad as North Korea.

America, we need to talk. 

1 comment:

William Newmiller said...

Looking forward to what you find in regard to frequency. I'd never thought too much about the numbers until my son was convicted of a murder he didn't commit. Only then, did I learn about the major causes of wrongful convictions and come to see how they impacted his case. Thanks for your work in this important area.

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