Liptak Laments U.S. Incarceration Rate, Blames Lack of "Safety Net"

The Times' new Supreme Court reporter, Adam Liptak, isn't a big fan of tough U.S. crime policy, judging by his Wednesday off-lead story, "Inmate Count In U.S. Dwarfs Other Nations' - Tough Laws and Long Terms Create Gap."

"Gap" makes it sound as if the U.S. incarceration rate compared to that of other countries is something objectively bad, as opposed to a political difference in opinion between nations on fighting crime. That Liptak also sees things that way was evident from the start.

The United States has less than 5 percent of the world's population. But it has almost a quarter of the world's prisoners.

Indeed, the United States leads the world in producing prisoners, a reflection of a relatively recent and now entirely distinctive American approach to crime and punishment. Americans are locked up for crimes - from writing bad checks to using drugs - that would rarely produce prison sentences in other countries. And in particular they are kept incarcerated far longer than prisoners in other nations.

Criminologists and legal scholars in other industrialized nations say they are mystified and appalled by the number and length of American prison sentences.

The United States has, for instance, 2.3 million criminals behind bars, more than any other nation, according to data maintained by the International Center for Prison Studies at King's College London.

Unlike his colleague Fox Butterfield, who once wrote a story with the gloriously obtuse headline "Crime Keeps On Falling, but Prisons Keep On Filling," Liptak admitted that keeping criminals in prison has helped lower the crime rate, although he fuzzes it up.

There is little question that the high incarceration rate here has helped drive down crime, though there is debate about how much.

But the classic Butterfield argument is snuck into a caption under a series of charts accompanying the story:

The incarceration rate has increased significantly while the crime rate has fallen in recent years.

Among other things Liptak blamed access to guns and an alleged lack of social programs in the U.S. for the high incarceration rate, despite the fact that U.S. federal social spending remains high and that crime rates in Britain soared after strict gun control was introduced there.

Criminologists and legal experts here and abroad point to a tangle of factors to explain America's extraordinary incarceration rate: higher levels of violent crime, harsher sentencing laws, a legacy of racial turmoil, a special fervor in combating illegal drugs, the American temperament, and the lack of a social safety net. Even democracy plays a role, as judges - many of whom are elected, another American anomaly - yield to populist demands for tough justice.

Whatever the reason, the gap between American justice and that of the rest of the world is enormous and growing.


The nation's relatively high violent crime rate, partly driven by the much easier availability of guns here, helps explain the number of people in American prisons.

"The assault rate in New York and London is not that much different," said Marc Mauer, the executive director of the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy group. "But if you look at the murder rate, particularly with firearms, it's much higher."

Despite the recent decline in the murder rate in the United States, it is still about four times that of many nations in Western Europe.