How The U.S. Prison System Has Failed Compared to Other Western Countries

Home to roughly over 300 million citizens, the United States possesses less than 5 percent of the world’s population. However, the U.S. prison system houses nearly a quarter of the world’s prisoners. The U.S. continues to lead with the highest total incarceration rate in the World, beating out even higher populated industrialized countries like Russia and China the countries with the second and third most prisoners in the world. However, The United States has more prisoners than Russia and China combined! More importantly, the U.S. leads in the highest per capita incarceration rate, with 715 individuals being incarcerated per 100,000. By any measurement, the incarceration rates in the United States are staggering; One in every 37 Americans having spent time in a state or federal prison. The FBI estimates that 6.6% of all individuals born in the U.S. each year will spend some time in prison. Currently, there are over 2.3 million people behind bars in the United States, yet despite this enormous incarceration rate, the United States remains the highest in the world in crime.

Given these dismal statistics, all criminal justice experts and politicians, both Republican and Democrat, agree that the prison system in America has failed miserably. Despite locking more and more people in prison, the United States crime rate per capita still remains the highest in the world. Conversely, other comparable countries appear to maintain continuously low prison populations with declining or stable crime rates. The premise of this blog is that the current U.S. prison system is a complete failure and we should look for guidance to other countries whose criminal justice systems are clearly working.

According to bipartisan studies, 39% of the U.S. prison system population (576,000 people) are behind bars with little public safety rationale. These bipartisan studies come to the conclusion that these prisoners can be safely released back into society, cutting our prison population. The problem is that many people who are in prison shouldn’t have been sent there in the first place. For example, these bipartisan studies found that 25% of prisoners (364,000 people), all non-violent, lower-level offenders, would be better served by alternatives to incarceration such as treatment, community service, or probation. Second, another 14% (212,000 prisoners) have already served long sentences for more serious crimes and can be safely set free. Releasing these inmates would save $20 billion annually, enough to employ 270,000 new police officers, 360,000 probation officers, or 327,000 school teachers. Republicans and Democrats both agree that America’s experiment in mass incarceration has failed miserably by every data point available. Both political parties agree that the U.S. must rethink sentencing to make our U.S. prison system better by decreasing crime and recidivism and reducing the disproportionate impact on communities of color.

All would agree that one of the largest problems facing the U.S. prison system is recidivism. The DOJ measures recidivism as acts that resulted in the re-arrests, reconviction, or return to prison with or without a new sentence. Most commonly, parolees return to prison for either committing a new crime or for violating the parameters and terms of parole. The recidivism rate in the United States is mind boggling with a reported 1,180,469 individuals at risk of being reincarcerated. According to the most recent nation-wide study conducted by the Department of Justice, nearly 68% of prisoners were rearrested within three years. Of those rearrested, 47% were reconvicted and 24% were resentenced to prison for an additional crime. Recidivism rates differed depending on the original crime. For examples, criminals who had previously been incarcerated for property crimes were the most likely to be rearrested, while those who had been previously incarcerated for violent crimes were least likely to be rearrested.

Our current system of mass incarceration has clearly resulted in a system that fails to prevent prisoners from committing crimes once they are released back into society. While rehabilitative programs, such as some education and vocation training do exist, these programs and others are minimized, and their effects diminished by the conditions of severe overcrowding and lack of funding. Overcrowding has made rehabilitative programs and health services almost impossible thereby exacerbating violence, gang activity, and drug availability, and therefore, largely failing to rehabilitate prisoners and prevent further criminal activity. Moreover, the costs associated with prison facilities, care of prisoners, programs, services, and staffing are extraordinary. The United States spends more money on its failing prison system each year than almost all other services including its education system. The only other social service that the United States spends more money on than its failing prison system is its social security system.

Given the enormous sums the United States spends on its prison systems, the return on its investment has been dismal. All the extraordinary funds the United States spends on its prisons has done little but to provide a temporary holding facility for criminals which does nothing more than prevent criminals from crime for a period of time. Overcrowding, reoccurring crime and the enormous costs that are facing the United States prison system are evidentiary of a system that is exceedingly flawed. The ideology and tough on crime policies that have led to mass incarceration have not successfully lowered crime rates or produced any solution to dealing with crime in the United States, however, have successfully burdened the American people with a fruitless system that costs an immense amount of tax payer dollars.

Other countries though seem to be getting it right where the United States is failing. Countries such as Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland and the United Kingdom have successfully significantly reduced their incarceration rate per capita while simultaneously substantially reducing their crime rate.

The Netherlands and Germany especially offer a unique insight into the organization, sentencing, conditions, and practices of two countries’ prison systems that have successfully lowered prison populations and simultaneously lowered crime rates. While they are two very diverse countries, their prison systems are strikingly similar. Germany and the Netherlands favor the employment of fines, community service, and probation as punishments for lesser, nonviolent crimes. Prison sentences are reserved for serious, violent crimes. Sentences are relatively short, life sentences are rare, and both countries have abolished the death penalty. Both countries are well below capacity levels in their prisons and are able to amply provide for prisoner programs and care. Furthermore, Germany and the Netherlands grant prisoners furloughs and have mandatory work programs. The United States could not be more divergent from Germany and the Netherlands in sentencing, conditions, and practice.

America readily condemns criminals to imprisonment, even for lesser crimes. Prison sentences are exceptionally lengthy, life sentencing without parole and multiple life sentences are used, and the death penalty is still in practice. Populations in the U.S. prison system are currently near prison capacity levels, making it difficult to accommodate the soaring influx and current quantity of inmates. And while the United States does offer educational and work programs, they are optional and severely underfunded. Furloughs are certainly not granted to prisoners.

Comparing the United States to two other highly developed countries with concurrent decreasing crime and prison populations is beneficial in uncovering potentially advantageous practices. While there are many societal and sociological factors that can contribute to crime and recidivism, it is important to examine the internal practices of prison systems and their possible impact on criminals. Pursuing the models of the German’s and Netherlands’ prison systems, the United States should consider and evaluate: a reduction in the utilization of prison sentences for lesser crimes and greater employment of fines, probation, and community service; greater sentence reduction rates for well-behaved inmates, elimination of excessive sentencing and perilous confinement practices, improving conditions, and implementing furlough and mandatory work programs. While the implementation of such practices will not solve all the numerous challenges facing the U.S. prison system, they may better provide an approach to reducing and better managing the heavy burdens within it.

With the highest rates of incarceration in the world, in total and per capita figures, the United States must reevaluate its sentencing, conditions, and practices in an effort to better contend with crime and better serve its citizenry. Looking to countries that have successfully reduced prison populations while simultaneously lowering crime rates is the perfect place to start.

Do you or someone you know need help navigating the U.S. criminal justice system? Don’t wait, contact Lawrence Goldfarb Criminal Justice Partners today to discuss your options.

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