As we near the end of the year, it seems like a good time to reflect, so I thought I’d examine how the United States compares to other countries in matters of policing and criminal justice. Unfortunately, an international comparison of criminal justice statistics shows just how far behind our country is.
Police shootings: This international comparison is the most dramatic. Even accounting for population size, the American police kill civilians at rates as high as 20 to 70 times more frequently than peer nations. To put that in perspective, The Guardian reports that in the first 24 days of 2015, police in the US fatally shot more people than police did in England and Wales combined over the past 24 years. British police fired their weapons only 51 times in ten years, between 2003 and 2013. Police in the U.S. fatally shot more people in one month of 2015 than police in Australia reported during a span of 19 years. I could go on, but suffice to say, this international comparison does not cast the United States in a favorable light.
Incarceration rates: While the United States comprises only 5% of the world’s population, it incarcerates nearly 25% of its prisoners. The United States has 2.3 million people behind bars, more than any other nation in the world. Although China is four times more populous, it is a distant second, with 1.6 million people in prison. The incarceration rate in the US is four times the world average and some individual U.S. states imprison up to six times as many people as nations of comparable population.
It is interesting to see this statistic broken down as a comparison of certain US states versus countries of comparable size:
Breaking this statistic down further, almost one-third of the entire world’s female prison population is women in prison in the United States. America has 201,200 women behind bars. Once again, China is a very distant second, with 84,600 female prisoners, and Russia is in third position, with 59,000 female prisoners.
And the United States is a tremendous outlier in its incarceration of children. See the chart below, from the Annie E. Casey Foundation to get a sense of it:
According to Bureau of Justice Statistics, nearly three-fourths (72.1%) of federal prisoners in America are incarcerated for non-violent offenses. Undoubtedly, this contributes to our higher incarceration rates.
Death Sentences and Executions: In 2014, the United States’ 35 executions did not lead the international comparison list, though it was certainly more executions than any other democracy. In fact, America trailed only China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq – a dubious list of comparable nations.
Use of Solitary Confinement: It goes by different names – isolation, segregation, solitary confinement – but it refers to the practice of isolating prisoners in cells, devoid of human contact, for 22-24 hours per day. In the United States, about 80,000-100,000 prisoners are held in solitary confinement, including juveniles and all sorts of non-violent offenders. Given our excessive incarceration rates, the international comparison of solitary confinement usage is, not surprisingly, way out of whack. The United Kingdom has about as many total prisoners as the United States has prisoners in solitary confinement. With this far smaller scale incarceration operation, the UK has only about 500 people in solitary confinement at any given time. A United Nations’ report concluded that 22 or 23 hours a day alone in a prison cell for more than 15 days at a time can constitute torture and cause permanent, lasting psychological damage. In 2011, the average amount of time spent in solitary confinement in a California prison was 6.8 years. In contrast, in June 2015, only 24 individuals had been segregated in British prisons for more than six months.
Militarization of the police: Since September 11, 2001, the United States has spent more than $34 billion in federal government grants for law enforcement agencies to buy military equipment. I’m talking about local police buying tanks and weaponry used by soldiers in foreign wars, not standard police cruisers. For the contrasting international comparison, consider that police officers in Britain, Ireland, Norway, Iceland and New Zealand, do not even carry guns while on patrol. It’s no wonder, with American militarization of the police, why US police shooting deaths far surpass every other country.
So, that’s today’s international comparison. As you take stock of the year and think about what you hope to do better next year, please join me in hoping that our country can do better in improving our criminal justice system.