The comments in my recent post about U.S. incarceration rates got a little bad tempered: some people (I’m looking at you, jet) didn’t like the figure, because it included countries that are not exactly model states. Some followup below the fold.
The point of the figure was to bring home that the U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, bar none. To illustrate this is not to explain it. So sure, many countries with lower incarceration rates are also not nice places to live, to put it mildly. If you have the highest rate of incarceration in the world that leaves a lot of countries looking better on that measure, even if many of them do so for bad reasons (such as being a failed state, or having the whole country be a kind of prison instead). So, just for the sake of it, here is the same data again, with the comparison restricted this time to basically well-functioning advanced capitalist democracies.
By the standards of comparable countries, the U.S.’s rate of incarceration is frankly astonishing.
A second objection was, this only tells a little bit of the story, to which we can say, of course. Jet asks, “Yeah, and where would the US fall in a graph showing percentage of the population victimized by crime?” Cross-national comparisons of crime statistics are hard, because of reporting and definitional issues. (This is true in the U.S. between states, too, or even between different cities and neighborhoods.) Your best bet is crimes involving a dead victim, because that’s most often reported. So here is the same list of countries ordered this time by the rate of deaths due to assault in 1999, the most recent year I have available.
As you can see, the U.S. is again a remarkable outlier. If you want to look at the time series for this statistic from 1960 to 2000 or so, here it is from a post last year. As you’ll see there, the U.S. is not only always #1 on this measure, it is also by far the most variable: the 1999 value is actually the lowest since the mid ’60s.