Friday, October 28, 2005

Americans in Prison

There are approximately 9 million people in the world in prison at the moment.

The US has about 2.2 million of it's people in prison.
China has 1.5 million (much less than our number - despite having a population 6 times our size).
Russia has 787,000.
India has 322,000.
South Africa has 187,000
England, France, and Germany each have about 70,000 prisoners.
Australia has 24,000.
Japan has 76,000.
Canada has 36,000.
Italy has 56,000.
Angola has 6,000

I'm just picking some countries at random.
Since population size skews this number, lets look at it more fairly. Let's look at it as a rate. The number of prisoners per 100,000 of population

United States: 736
South Africa: 413
England/Wales: 139
Australia: 120
China: 118
Canada: 116
Italy: 97
Germany: 91
France: 85
Japan: 60
Angola: 44
India: 31

So, from this we can see that although we only have 4% of the world's population, we have 25% of the worlds prisoners. Roughly, it seems we have about 600% higher incarceration rates than most other modern countries.

Why is this?

Another fact:
A black male born in the US today has a 29% chance of going to prison sometime during his life. If he is born in Washington D.C, he has a 75% chance of going to prison at some point. So is it some racial predisposition of our justice system? I'm sure some people might suggest that some races are more predisposed toward committing crimes than others. For instance, they might suggest that, on average, blacks commit more crimes than Asians. But the statistics don't necessarily bear that out when you examine the issue internationally. Looking at Angola, or other African countries in general, there is quite a range from low to high incarceration rates, with many African countries having quite low rates. So it doesn't seem tied to race itself, since most of those countries are predominantly black. However, notably, South Africa, is second highest to the US and has a history of whites running the legal system and a mostly black population. So, could it be not so much a specific race, but rather racial tensions between two distinct groups?

I remember once the Police Chief in Toronto, Canada announced the annual statistics to the press, and included in those statistics was the fact that the black population was responsible for 62% of the violent crimes, yet they were only 6% of the actual overall population.
Canada never had slavery like the US, so that history and the ripples and ramifications of it don't exist there. The black population there is small enough that there is not really as much of a separate sub-culture there like there is here. Canada is now pretty much a cultural mixed bag of everything, all races, all cultures, all languages. There must be other factors.
By the way, that police chief was fired for announcing the statistics. I should add, he wasn't stating any opinions, or drawing any conclusions. He was merely listing the numbers. Similarly, I am not trying to make any racial point here either, though, so please don't anyone take offense. I am only trying to figure this out, and race would be conspicuously absent if I left it out completely. I thought it better to address it fairly and impartially, rather than ignore it and risk making subtle implications through deliberate omission.

But putting race issues aside for the moment, why do we have SO many prisoners here in the US? Is it that our rules are too constrictive and so it's too easy to break the laws? Or is it that our police force is the most efficient and so we catch more criminals than anybody else? Or are we just BAD? Are we, as an American culture, more inclined to criminal behavior than people from other countries?
I must say that when I moved from Canada to the US, I did notice a number of subtle cultural distinctions. One of which is that Canadians seem to praise lawfullness and people who play within the rules. Whereas, in the US, there is a certain glorification of the bad boy that breaks the rules.
Criminals like Bonnie and Clyde, The James Gang, Billy the Kid become folk heroes. America seems to love the concept of the bad boy rebel that breaks the laws. Elsewhere it is seen as antisocial. Here it is seen as romantic rugged individualism. Americans find that image appealing.
Years ago, I remember a boss asking me if I was a 'rule breaker' or a 'rule follower'. I told him I was generally a rule-follower. I figured the rules were made for a reason. To me they are not merely some capricious gesture of power by someone in control. They are set up to protect people, to make traffic flow smoothly, etc. He said "In this country you have to be a rule breaker to get ahead. You'll never get anywhere if you follow the rules. The rules are for suckers." This does seem to be the prevailing attitude here.
Listening to the morning radio talk show on the way to work one morning, the show host was complaining that he had received a ticket for driving in the HOV lane. His co-host said "Well, it serves you right. You shouldn't have been breaking the law." He replied, "Those rules are just to keep all the general population in line. They don't apply to me. The people who take initiative and break the rules are the ones that get ahead in the world. The occasional ticket is the price we pay for taking the initiative - taking the chance always has some risk."
I found it both interesting and disappointing that he had no concept of right or wrong, or inconvenience to others. To him, the world revolved around him, and it's merely a personal matter of how much risk he is willing to take to accomplish his goals. Is this narcissistic attitude endemic to our modern American society? If so, why?

Could it be maybe, because the Americans were the rebels breaking away from England when the country was founded? Ah but then if you're going THAT far back, Australia was started as a criminal penal colony from England, and yet their criminal rate is FAR less than ours.

So what is it? There is a clear distinction between us and the rest of the world. We are, apparently, the BAD guys 600% more often than the others. What is causing this?

As for the numbers of criminals here being so high because of poverty, we just need to look at countries with higher levels of poverty than us, and look at their incarceration rates and crime rates to realize that poverty, by itself, is not responsible. In fact, as a country, the US is generally regarded as the wealthiest nation in the world, and yet, as a nation, we have the highest number of prisoners in the world – by a significant margin. So no, I don’t think it is driven by poverty. Maybe poverty in the midst of wealth leads to more temptation. There might be something there. But remember that most people around the world do see movies and TV occasionally where they see wealth being portrayed. So that envy effect is not just limited to here.

Another thing I noticed is that the attitude toward the ‘bad boy hero’ has evolved over the years.
When I was a kid, the good guys were the heroes, and we always wanted to be the good guys. That seems to have gradually changed. I remember the first time I noticed the attitude shift. It was about a car. We were adolescent age. A friend and I were admiring this customized car, and he said “It looks MEAN! It looks EVIL! That is so COOL!” It occurred to me right then that that was the first time I had ever heard anyone say that something that was mean and evil was cool and desirable. For the first time I heard someone WANT to be mean and evil. It was a new understanding for me.

Think back to our movie heroes. Remember Roy Rogers? Squeaky clean. Dressed in white. Never even uttered a curse word. He was the kind of clean, good-guy hero we had in those days. Remember Superman? Captain America? Then the completely clean hero evolved into the next level. The James Bond type, who sometimes had to resort to doing a bit of dirty work to get the job done in the interest of the greater good. Then came the hero who was a kind of diamond in the rough. A guy who had a heart of gold inside, but his exterior looks and ways needed polishing. He was flawed, but mostly only on the surface. The John Wayne style of hero. Bruce Willis carries on this tradition. Then we got to the Dirty Harry point where the good guy was almost as bad as the bad guy. He would fight and kill people – but only bad people. He fought for the law, and still protected good people. Rambo. Cobra. And it kept gradually evolving to eventually get to today’s heroes like Vin Diesel. Either as XXX or as Riddick in the Chronicles of Riddick, he is a criminal. A bad guy through and through. A mass-murdering evildoer. But he might be persuaded to do this one good act – not because he wants to save anybody or anything, but just because the other bad guys pissed him off. Plus he is just trying to survive himself. We even have female versions of this. Elektra is one. Kill Bill is another. A cold, calculating female assassin. Then we, the public, sit back and watch things blow up and see the body parts fly.

Is this what happened? Did we evolve from clean good-guy heroes to dirty bad-guy heroes? Did Hollywood lure us to the dark side? Like Anikin Skywalker being lured to the dark side to become Darth Vader, hated and feared by everyone on BOTH sides? Or did we always have the bad guy heroes? I have all of Humphrey Bogart’s movies in my little collection. 33 movies. He usually played a bad guy of one sort or another. Either a hardened criminal like in High Sierra, or a misunderstood good guy with some bad guy traits, or a criminal by deed, but a good guy by heart, like in Passage to Marseilles. Or a selfish, self-serving guy who deals in petty criminal activity, but who redeems himself by one act of noble self-sacrifice in the name of love, like in Casablanca. But we liked his style, didn’t we? And there was George Raft, and Edward G Robinson, and others. There were always some bad guy heroes.
But there did seem to be a shift from a case where we had some heroes being bad guys to almost ALL our heroes being bad guys to varying degrees.

Do you suppose these movie heroes reflected out society, or set the standards for our society to follow?
Did this create our goals? Is this how we sank down to where we are now?
Did we, as a culture, cross over to ‘The Dark Side’?
Did we, as a culture, decide that "mean and evil" was 'cool'?

Looking a little further into this with some emails back and forth with friends, it seems that many people think much of the reasons for the dramatically high crime rate in the US is due to some social trends among racial groups (like the percentage of young black males growing up in single-parent families, etc.), and also more support for the idea that it's poor people living in a highly materialistic society that values material possessions above all else.

However, I think there is definitely some material validity to these opinions, but there are other facts to consider too. For example:

We know that the large prisoner population is due to a high crime rate. That is a direct logical correlation (since in order to become a prisoner, one must commit a crime).
So we must then look at not just the NUMBER of crimes, but the amount of different types of crimes as well. In things like burglary and theft, for instance, the US was compared to England and they found that we are no worse off. In fact, a Londoner is more likely to have things stolen or burgled than a New Yorker.
However, the violent crimes are MUCH higher here in the US than anywhere else on the planet. The paper I mentioned in the first post here mentions that this is due to the much stronger gun control laws in most other civilized nations. They make the argument that it is far easier to kill someone with guns than with knives or fists. In a study in 1988 for example, the US had 5.6 times as many deaths by shooting than England on a per capita basis.

Nevertheless, violent crime in the US had been on a dramatic decrease since the beginning of the 1990's. What has replaced it has been drug-related crimes. Overall, crimes have grown dramatically, but the lion's share of that growth has all be in the drug trafficking areas.

On NPR night before last, they were interviewing Steven D. Levitt, a well-known analyst and economist and author of the book, "Freakonomics". He specializes in the hidden connections between different factors of laws, rules, society, and the economy. He was saying that he looked at a number of factors and noted trends that tied together and looked for connections. He proved the case where the dramatic reduction in violent crime in the US can be attributed to the legalization of abortion.
I won't go through his whole causal analysis here for fear of misrepresenting it and not doing it justice - but that was the bottom line on that point at least. Read the book if you want to know more.

Statistically, though, I CAN tell you that violent crime did in fact reduce from 9.8 per 100,000 people in 1991 to 5.6 per 100,000 people in 2001.
So it was cut by almost half in those 10 years.

However, drug-related crimes increased more than tenfold from 40,000 prisoners in 1980 to about half a million prisoners today.

So it would seem that we are still the most violent country on Earth, but we are improving in that area over the past 15 years, and yet our drug use is increasing dramatically.


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