The United States of America holds nearly a quarter of the world’s prisoners, despite its relatively small population of under 300 million people. With over 2.3 million criminals behind bars, criminologists and legal scholars around the world are shocked by the duration of sentencing and the range of crimes that are punishable by jail time in the United States. These analysts point to “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” as reasons for the high percentage of the population imprisoned. The number of prisoners held in America grows every year, and the country has become the most frequent jailer by a large margin.
Michael H. Tonry, the author of “The Handbook of Crime and Punishment” believes that the United States is harsher than any other country with regards to prison sentencing. Vivien Stern, another authority in the field, notes that this is a rare circumstance where the United States does not follow Western norms, but rather makes its own decisions. This, however, was not always the case.
Since the 1970’s, the United States incarceration rate as increased dramatically. This is due to an increase in violent crimes, easy access to firearms, and the view of many politicians to be tough on drugs. The United States of America’s murder rate is about four times the rate of many European nations. With this being said, it is important to note that the country has a somewhat low rate of non-violent crimes. Unfortunately for petty criminals in America, these crimes will more often than not land them in jail, as opposed to the softer punishments in other countries. The most significant of these non-violent crimes involve drugs.
The number of prisoners detained for drug crimes increased by over 450,000 in the last 30 years. Police and prosecutors believe that imprisoning people for drug crimes hinders the drug trade and helps decrease other crimes as well. Attorney General Michael Mukasey has made his stance on the issue quite clear, striving to prevent criminals charged with certain drug offenses from being released from prison earlier than their mandated term.