Ta-Nehisi Coates comments on the state of America’s criminal justice system that has resulted in the largest incarcerated population in the world.
“Through the middle of the 20th century, America’s imprisonment rate hovered at about 110 people per 100,000. Presently, … America’s closest to-scale competitor is Russia—and with an autocratic Vladimir Putin locking up about 450 people per 100,000, compared with our 700 or so, it isn’t much of a competition. China has about four times America’s population, but American jails and prisons hold half a million more people.”
“What caused this? Crime would seem the obvious culprit: … But the relationship between crime and incarceration is more discordant than it appears … From the mid-’70s to the late ’80s, both imprisonment rates and violent-crime rates rose. Then, from the early ’90s to the present, violent-crime rates fell while imprisonment rates increased.”
“The incarceration rate rose independent of crime—but not of criminal-justice policy. Derek Neal, an economist at the University of Chicago, has found that by the early 2000s, a suite of tough-on-crime laws had made prison sentences much more likely than in the past. Examining a sample of states, Neal found that from 1985 to 2000, the likelihood of a long prison sentence nearly doubled for drug possession, tripled for drug trafficking, and quintupled for nonaggravated assault.”