Thursday, May 25, 2006

Statistics: Crime in America

1 in 136 Americans is currently in prison or jail. That's a lot of people.

At midyear 2005 the Nation’s prisons and jails incarcerated 2,186,230 persons. Prisoners in the custody of the 50 States and the Federal system accounted for two-thirds of the incarcerated population (1,438,701) inmates). The other third were held in local jails (747,529), not including persons in community-based programs.

So says a new report by the Dept. of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics. The report can be found here, with an abstract, spreadsheets, press release, ASCII file, here.

I'm always a bit torn by debates over criminal justice. The most effective thing a community can do to reduce crime is put more cops on the street and more criminals in jail, usually through harsher laws and law enforcement. This is literally a life and death matter to people. If we can do something to promote safety and prevent death, we should.

On the other hand, we're pretty much condemning anyone you put in jail to a lifetime of poverty and incarceration, due to the problems of recidivism. With a criminal background, few marketable skills, and an unexplainable gap in their resume, criminals almost always repeat their crimes once released from prison. Putting someone into jail for even a year is essentially the same as making them a criminal for life.

But it is undeniable that having such a large incarcerated population speaks to a failure of our society. Education, jobs, mental health care, civil rights, culture - take your pick - there are so many things that just scream out for change that you end up being deafened. And so we are left with the products of our failures, and quibble over whether there should be more prisons or expedited execution procedures.
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