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It's A Gray Area: Incarceration is not always the best option

May 17, 2013|By James P. Gray

One thing that starkly sets the United States apart from other Western industrial countries is our incarceration rate. Today our country has more than 2.3 million people in jail or prison, which means that, with about 5% of the world's population, we have 25% of its prisoners.

In the years 2006 to 2008, which are the latest dates for which statistics are available, the U.S. led the world with 753 people incarcerated for every 100,000 members of our population. Russia was next with 629, followed by Rwanda, Cuba and Belize with 593, 531 and 476, respectively. So look at the company we keep. The five countries with the lowest incarceration rates were Iceland, Japan, Denmark, Finland and Norway, with 44, 63, 66, 67 and 70, respectively.

These statistics mean that one of 99 adults in the United States is either in jail or prison. And for black males it is even worse, with one in nine being incarcerated. Faced with numbers like these, people of every political persuasion are beginning to understand that punishment for the sheer sake of punishment doesn't work.

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Besides, we can no longer afford it.

Generally, there are four different kinds of people who are put into jail or prison. The first group is made up of violent offenders who have shown themselves to be a continuing threat to our safety or property. These people should be removed from society until that threat has been materially reduced.

The second group consists of people who have been charged with offenses but are considered a risk because they may not to appear for their trial. Depriving people of their freedom before they have been convicted of an offense is a serious thing to do, but sometimes it is necessary.

The third group consists of non-violent offenders who personally need to be shown that everyone must follow the rules. In other words, they need to be deterred from further violations of law. And the fourth group consists of people such as Martha Stewart, who are punished as public examples so that others are deterred.

It is the vastly large number of offenders in the third group who are filling up our jails and prisons, and this is where some basic changes in approach must take place. For most of these people, short periods of time in jail, such as three to 30 days, will accomplish whatever positive purposes that can be accomplished.

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