American Exceptionalism.

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Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va), who is introducing a bill to reform the U.S. criminal justice system:

“Let’s start with a premise that I don’t think a lot of Americans are aware of. We have five percent of the world’s population; we have 25 percent of the world’s known prison population. There are only two possibilities here: either we have the most evil people on earth living in the United States; or we are doing something dramatically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of criminal justice.”

Well, which is it?

24 thoughts on “American Exceptionalism.

  1. Scott April 1, 2009 at 2:24 pm Reply

    I doubt we here in the US have any idea how many folks are really in prisons in places like the USSR, China, North Korea or other workers’ paradises.

    That said, yes I think we do do some things in the criminal justice system more efficiently.

    • quadmoniker April 1, 2009 at 7:51 pm Reply

      Yeah, and I bet there are things in some countries they don’t call prisons that we would count as prisons.

      That stat was the same one used by Atul Gawande in his piece on solitary confinement in last week’s New Yorker. Does anyone know where it comes from?

      • ladyfresshh April 2, 2009 at 9:07 am Reply

        i wikipedia’d (hey…it comes in handy…)

        aaand here are the sources cited (the footnotes in the wikipedia link have pdf links and clickable links)

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prisons_in_the_United_States#cite_note-WorldPrisonBrief-4

        3 ^ a b World Prison Population List. 7th edition. By Roy Walmsley. Published in 2007. International Centre for Prison Studies. School of Law, King’s College London. For editions 1 through 7: [1].
        4 ^ “New Incarceration Figures: Thirty-Three Consecutive Years of Growth” (PDF). Sentencing Project. December 2006. http://www.sentencingproject.org/Admin/Documents/publications/inc_newfigures.pdf. Retrieved on 2007-06-10.
        5 ^ a b World Prison Brief – Highest to Lowest Figures. International Centre for Prison Studies. School of Law, King’s College London. Compare many nations. Select from menu: prison population total, prison population rate, percentage of pre-trial detainees / remand prisoners within the prison population, percentage of female prisoners within the prison population, percentage of foreign prisoners within the prison population and occupancy rate.
        6 ^ Walmsley, Roy (2005). “World Prison Population List” (PDF). King’s College London, International Centre for Prison Studies. http://www.kcl.ac.uk/depsta/rel/icps/world-prison-population-list-2005.pdf. Retrieved on 2007-10-19. For the latest detailed country data, see “Prison Brief for United States of America”. King’s College London, International Centre for Prison Studies. 2006-06-21. http://www.kcl.ac.uk/depsta/rel/icps/worldbrief/north_america_records.php?code=190. Retrieved on 2007-10-19. There are reports that the People’s Republic of China’s actual prison population and incarceration rate and North Korea’s incarceration rate may exceed those of the United States. See Adams, Cecil (2004-02-06). “Does the United States Lead the World in Prison Population?”. The Straight Dope. http://www.straightdope.com/columns/040206.html. Retrieved on 2007-10-11.

  2. blackink12 April 1, 2009 at 10:50 pm Reply

    As far as being unsure about accurate prison counts in other countries, that much is certainly true. We really have no way of knowing. But a clue to the source of the figure might be found here: http://www.kcl.ac.uk/news/news_details.php?news_id=993&year=2009.

    It’s known as the World Prison Population List. The study seems to line up with Webb and Gawande’s stat about the U.S. prison pop while acknowledging the many flaws in the survey.

    And in all fairness, Webb did qualify his remarks with “the world’s known prison population.”

    • quadmoniker April 2, 2009 at 5:01 pm Reply

      Thanks that’s really helpful.

  3. Rick S. April 2, 2009 at 12:39 am Reply

    It may be possible that we have the most evil people in the world … and perhaps most of them live outside the prison system.

  4. Scott April 2, 2009 at 8:37 am Reply

    I get tired of the comparison between the world and the US. Yes, we have more people in prison than some countries. However, the US is the most ethnically and religiously heterogeneous republic in the world. We invented the modern republic and even in the worst times, such as the Bush/Gore fight there were never any military troops in the street or threat of a military coup. That is the true American exceptionalism.

    • the black scientist April 2, 2009 at 1:00 pm Reply

      “I get tired of the comparison between the world and the US.”

      What does that mean Scott? Doesn’t America deserve to be held up to the rest of the world? At least in terms of civic commitments and government institutions? In terms of technological (meaning synthetic) “development” I can see global comparison/competition as a possible hindrance, but when it comes to people in prison, GDP spent on health care, [public] education, etc, I think it is absolutely necessary to place America on the globe and to – frankly – embarrass the nation in order to inspire change. Otherwise, we come to think of this shit as normal, or okay. Which it isn’t.

      Furthermore, what does the U.S. being “the most ethnically and religiously heterogeneous republic” in the world have to do with the fact that we incarcerate a disproportionate amount of the the world’s known prison population? Considering what a young country the U.S. is, one would expect that we would be at the forefront of creating the good society. And at one point, it could be argued, that we were – at least in relation to industrialization (which is controversial progress anyway). But now, in the context of developed nations, we are far behind in education, health care, and obviously, incarceration systems.

      • Scott April 2, 2009 at 2:26 pm Reply

        My point is that when you have a small population that is both ethnically and religiously homogeneous, as you do in many of the other western European democracies, it is much easier for everyone to agree on what the social norms should be and get folks to internalize/obey those same norms. Therefore there are likely to be fewer people in a criminal justice system and probably more agreement on how to treat them.

        I think the fallacy here is assuming that because the US is a western democracy that the US should have incarceration rates like the other western democracies when or history and population are very different. Or for that matter assuming that because the US is a young country that we would be at the forefront of creating a “good” society whatever that is.

        • dilettante April 2, 2009 at 2:53 pm Reply

          My point is that when you have a small population that is both ethnically and religiously homogeneous, Scott

          That is fair to say for parts of Europe,Japan etc. In America, in spite of centuries of segregation, black and white Americans ,do not have vastly different cultures, that is the fallacy which your statement seems to imply. Did you click on the link to Salon.com, that starts this post which excerpts statements from Sen. Jim Webb? The Drug War caused the explosion in US prison population.

          “The elephant in the bedroom in many discussions on the criminal justice system is the sharp increase in drug incarceration over the past three decades…African-Americans are about 12% of our population; contrary to a lot of thought and rhetoric, their drug use rate in terms of frequent drug use rate is about the same as all other elements of our society, about 14%. But they end up being 37% of those arrested on drug charges, 59% of those convicted, and 74% of those sentenced to prison by the numbers that have been provided by us…” .

          Some other resources: Human Rights Watch; Drug Law Enforcement and Race in the United States

          • Scott April 2, 2009 at 3:26 pm Reply

            Gee, that’s strange, last time I checked I thought there more than just black or white folks folks here in the US. You know fairly soon non-white Hispanics will out number blacks.

            • dilettante April 2, 2009 at 4:44 pm Reply

              Actually Scott non-white Hispanics already outnumber blacks. In spite of not knowing that fact, I bet that you do know this one: black American (males) are by far the largest population of US prisons; upwards of 30%,actually I’ve read higher numbers, but that should set the magnitude.

              Hopefully that will help to contextualize, or “clue you in” to Senator Webb’s mention of African American drug use vis a vis ” all other elements of our society”, as well as solve the mystery of why the Human Rights Watch report I linked above, had a subtitle of Targeting Blacks in its report on the ‘War on Drugs’. Glad I could help.

        • the black scientist April 2, 2009 at 4:40 pm Reply

          i don’t think ethnic and religious diversity are to blame for incarceration rates. which, i think, is essentially what you’re arguing.

          • Leigh April 2, 2009 at 4:49 pm Reply

            Especially considering that our prison population, as dilettante is also pointing out, does not accurately mirror our ethnic diversity. Latinos and African-Americans are disproportionately incarcerated. Why’s that now? They’re the problematic racial/ethnic groups keeping us from harmonious diversity? Wait, don’t go there…

  5. ladyfresshh April 2, 2009 at 10:02 am Reply

    Well the prison system is pretty much a joke at the reform aspect. So reforming reform institutions (fine groan, yes i just wanted to type that) might be a good idea since the currently system pretty much resembles a hamster on a wheel.

    Sans comparisons to other prison systems, i still think we do not have much to be proud of regarding actual reform.

    • Scott April 2, 2009 at 12:01 pm Reply

      The problem is that the US has never really made up its mind of as to what it hopes to accomplish with incarceration.

      • quadmoniker April 2, 2009 at 12:50 pm Reply

        LF: Scott’s right. Not everyone thinks prison’s should be rehabilitative. The biggest problem is that we haven’t really agreed yet on what prison’s should do. Then we can decide how poorly we do it. There are plenty of people in this contry who think prisons should just be punitive.

        • the black scientist April 2, 2009 at 1:15 pm Reply

          I don’t think it’s true that the U.S. doesn’t know what it hopes to accomplish with prisons. U.S. prisons barely feign rehabilitation as a goal (especially historically). The prison industrial complex is deeply connected to a) slavery and b) the internationalization of capital. As Angela Davis has pointed out, the 13th amendment that abolished slavery, did so except for convicts. Thus, through prison the vestiges of slavery have continued.

          “Built into the 13th Amendment was state authorization to use prison labor as a bridge between slavery and paid work. Slavery was abolished “except as a punishment for crime.” This stipulation provided the intellectual and legal mechanisms to enable the state to use ‘unfree’ labor by leasing prisoners to local businesses and corporations desperate to rebuild the South’s infrastructure.”

          http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/gilmoreprisonslavery.html

          I think the mission of the prison system was not only clear in its inception but it has succeeded in doing what it set out to do. Which partially explains the racial composition of prisons…

          • Leigh April 2, 2009 at 4:52 pm Reply

            Word. Is it any surprise that when I read this “The prison industrial complex is deeply connected to a) slavery and b) the internationalization of capital.” when my eyes moved to “Angela” what my mind processed was “Angola” (Prison in LA, for those unfamiliar)

          • quadmoniker April 2, 2009 at 4:59 pm Reply

            I agree that, in practice, there’s nothing rehabilitative about prisons. But some people think that should be a goal, and others don’t.

            • Leigh April 2, 2009 at 5:45 pm Reply

              It’s my understanding that rehab was the emphasis until the 70s/Reagan Era, and that once again we’re moving back towards it (in part of necessity due to overcrowding from drug convictions).

            • ladyfresshh April 3, 2009 at 11:00 am Reply

              The others that feel that prisons should be solely be punitive. Is this across the board for all offenses?

              • G.D. April 3, 2009 at 11:23 am Reply

                wouldn’t that depend on the person?

                • ladyfresshh April 3, 2009 at 12:00 pm Reply

                  i suppose but i would think there is some sort of representative group… no?

                  the NRA for example while there are various views on guns they would best represent the views of that segment

                  or is this just a random general neglible small group and in that case are they even worth mentioning?

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