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Editorial

Legally Speaking



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06/01/2011 - American law is, by international standards, a series of innovations and exceptions. This is the second in a series of articles this year that will examine commonplace aspects of the American justice system that are unique in the world.

Adam Liptak originally researched and published these articles in 2007 and 2008. With permission from The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Liptak's articles have been edited for space, and we will try to update his reports with recent statistics or rulings that may have changed the law since the articles were first published.

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AMERICAN EXCEPTION INMATE COUNT IN U.S. DWARFS OTHER NATIONS'

By Adam Liptak, The Wall Street Journal, April 23, 2008

The United States has less than 5 percent of the world's population. But it has almost a quarter of the world's prisoners. Americans are locked up for crimes — from writing bad checks to using drugs — that would rarely produce prison sentences in other countries. And, they are kept incarcerated far longer than prisoners in other nations.

The United States comes in first on the list ranked in order of the incarceration rates. It has 751 people in prison or jail for every 100,000 in population. (If you count only adults, one in 100 Americans is locked up.) The only other major industrialized nation that even comes close is Russia, with 627 prisoners for every 100,000 people. By comparison, England's rate is 151; Germany's is 88; and Japan's is 63. The median among all nations is about 125, roughly a sixth of the American rate.

The nation's relatively high violent crime rate 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."

The United States, however, has relatively low rates of nonviolent crime. It has lower burglary and robbery rates than Australia, Canada and England. But, people who commit nonviolent crimes in the rest of the world are less likely to receive prison time and long sentences. The United States is, for instance, the only advanced country that incarcerates people for minor property crimes like passing bad checks.

Efforts to combat illegal drugs play a major role in explaining long prison sentences in the United States as well. In 1980, there were about 40,000 people in American jails and prisons for drug crimes. These days, there are almost 500,000.

Still, it is the length of sentences that truly distinguishes American prison policy. If lists were compiled based on annual admissions to prison per capita, several European countries would outpace the United States. But American prison stays are much longer, so the total incarceration rate is higher. For example, burglars in the United States serve an average of 16 months in prison, according to Mr. Mauer, compared with 5 months in Canada and 7 months in England.

Whatever the reasons, there is little dispute that America's exceptional incarceration rate has had an impact on crime. From 1981 to 1996, according to Justice Department statistics, the risk of punishment rose in the United States and fell in England. As a result, the crime rates predictably fell in the United States and rose in England.

"The simple truth is that imprisonment works," wrote Kent Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in The Stanford Law and Policy Review. "Locking up criminals for longer periods reduces the level of crime. The benefits of doing so far offset the costs."

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Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice. You must consult with an attorney for the application of the law to your specific circumstances.

R. Michael Shickich is the founder of the Injury Law Firm located in Casper. The focus of his practice is personal injury and wrongful death cases.

The Wyoming State Bar does not certify any lawyer as a specialist or expert. Anyone considering a lawyer should independently investigate the lawyer's credentials and ability, and not rely upon advertisements or self-proclaimed expertise.

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