Does America Imprison Too Many People?

Considering the amount of time we have been spending discussing the causes and effects of the War on Drugs recently, not mentioning Judge Richard Posner's recent post on the incarceration rate in America would be almost negligent. From the article:

Another troubled American system is that of criminal justice, with particular emphasis on the astrounding (sic) growth and level of imprisonment. Some statistics: the incarceration rate had been 118 per 100,000 in 1950, and actually fell in 1972 to 93 per 100,00. By 2000 it had reached 469 and only since the advent of the economic crisis has it begun to decline as states try to reduce expenditures. Between 1950 and 2000 the white imprisonment rate increased by 184 percent and the black imprisonment rate by 355 percent; today 40 percent of prison and jail inmates are black, although blacks are only 13 percent of the overall population. Even though the U.S. crime rate fell by a third in the 1990s (and by two-thirds in many large cities)— the murder rate by more than 40 percent—the inmate population continued growing during this period, an increase that cannot be explained by population growth, since the population grew by much less than a third in the 1990s.

For more on these alarming statistics, check out the complete post here. Fans of Judge Posner will know that he has addressed the War on Drugs in the past, and his views on marijuana in particular are not entirely dissimilar from those of recent contributor Rob Morris. Meanwhile, Judge Posner's partner-in-blogging Gary Becker has also posted on the topic. From his piece:

Imprisonment is the right policy for anyone committing heinous crimes like rape, assaults, robbery at gunpoint, and many other crimes where victims are badly harmed both physically and mentally. Imprisonment is the wrong punishment for crimes without victims, or where other punishments are more effective. The sale of drugs is the prime example of a “victimless” crime for understanding the data on imprisonment. Buyers of drugs for the most part enter into voluntary transactions with sellers. Yet almost one quarter of all persons in US prisons are there on drug-related charges. In addition, studies indicate that many others are there because they committed crimes to finance their expensive drug habits since drug prices are kept artificially high by US drug policy.

Interestingly, both articles contain discussions on deterrence, a concept that factored heavily in our readers' comments on the original War on Drugs article we posted.


  1. Anonymous6/12/11 11:05

    And I see that BlawgConomics friend Rob Morris has joined in the discussion on the Becker-Posner blog, as well! Good to see such high-minded discourse on a thorny subject.

  2. Josh Sturtevant6/12/11 21:55

    I will take any connection to that august blog, however tenuous it may be!