Jacob Sullum

For Americans tired of hearing how we lag behind other developed nations in teaching children math, science and reading, a new report highlights an area where the United States is indisputably a world leader. According to the Pew Center on the States, the United States has a higher incarceration rate than any other country. In your face, Finland!

I exaggerate the response to the report slightly. But some conservatives did react to the news that one out of 99 American adults is behind bars with equanimity, if not pride. "When I see a headline about a record incarceration rate, I'm glad," wrote National Review Senior Editor Ramesh Ponnuru on his Washington Post blog. "Aren't you?"

No, I'm not. If the United States were locking up more people than other countries simply because it had a higher crime rate, the number of prisoners in itself would not necessarily be cause for concern. The problem is that it's locking up many people for longer than is appropriate and many people who do not belong in prison at all, including half a million drug offenders.

The Pew Center may not be right that the United States has a higher incarceration rate than countries like China and Cuba, whose official figures should be viewed with skepticism. Still, the United States undeniably imprisons a much larger share of its population than other democracies: about 750 per 100,000 people, more than twice the rates in Ukraine, Estonia and Latvia; more than five times the rates in Spain, Scotland and the Netherlands; and more than 10 times the rates in Denmark, Italy and Finland.

But so what? Maybe we have a bigger crime problem, a more sensibly tough response to it or both. "The fact that we have a large prison population by itself is not a central problem," the criminologist James Q. Wilson told The Washington Post, "because it has contributed to the extraordinary increase in public safety we have had in this country."

When the government incarcerates people who are guilty only of consensual "crimes," however, it wastes scarce prison space that could be used to incapacitate predatory criminals. That compromises public safety rather than enhancing it.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that drug offenders account for about 25 percent of local jail inmates, 21 percent of state prisoners and 55 percent of federal prisoners. Since 1980 the number of drug offenders in state prisons has increased by 1,200 percent, more than four times the increase in violent offenders.

Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
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