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U.S. out of line among developed nations in portion of population imprisoned

Sociologist Christopher Uggen also tells a University of Minnesota forum that the disproportion is significantly different when separated by race.

Minnesota is 49th among the 50 states in incarceration rate.
REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

The United States is way out of line with the rest of the developed world in the portion of the population that is incarcerated, sociologist Christopher Uggen said at a forum Wednesday night at the University of Minnesota.

And it will be of little surprise that the disproportion is significantly different when separated by race.

Many of the most developed nations in the world, such as Japan or in Western Europe, about 50 people out of every 100,000 of population are incarcerated. The gloabl average for all nations is 144 for each 100,000 of population. The U.S. figure of 716 per 100,000 is about five time higher than the world average and more than ten times higher than other wealthy nations.

But the U.S. incarceration rate breaks down to 400 out of every 100,000 white Americans and 2,000 per 100,000 for blacks, Uggen said.

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In Minneapolis, he said, the annual arrest rate is 227 out of every 1,000 blacks in the population. The white arrest rate is about one tenth of that.

The good news is that both the crime rate and the incarceration rate are declining in the United States, although the crime rate is falling much faster, he said. The U.S. crime rate has fallen by half over the past 20 years. The rate of what Uggen calls “mass incarceration” is still very high after rising for 40 years has leveled off and now appears to be starting to decline.

Minnesota is 49th among the 50 states in incarceration rate, Uggen said. But Minnesota is above average in the number of its citizens who are on probation or parole or otherwise under the supervision of the criminal justice system, Uggen said.

While being out on probation may be much preferable to being in prison, his research shows that being in “supervision” very seriously undermines the chances of getting a job, getting an apartment, receiving public assistance or voting.

Uggen made reference to his own run-ins with the law as a young man, but said that because of “just and humane discretion” on the part of the authorities, his path to success in life had not been cut off. He expressed hope that similar humane discretion can be shown to more youths who get arrested.

Uggen is the Distinguished McKnight Professor of Sociology and Law at the University of Minnesota and is leading scholar on the intersection of crime and sociology and especially on the disfranchisement of felons.

Also on the panel was Ramsey County District Judge Leonardo Castro, whose pre-judicial work was as a public defender, including a stint as chief public defender in Hennepin County.

Unlike Uggen, Castro did not come armed with statistics, so he told anecdotes that captured some of the vagaries of arrests and sentences. For example, he compared two recent cases, one in which a drunk driver caused an accident that led to four deaths, and another in which a man was convicted of selling 10 grams of cocaine. The driver was sentenced to 48 months in prison; the drug pusher got 86 months. Looking at the impact of the two crimes, he wondered, “How do we make those decisions?”

He told of Somali-American juror he met recently who told him that he used to get pulled over by police frequently until he got rid of his ratty old car and bought a much nicer new one. The police incidents stopped.

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The panel was moderated by KARE-TV reporter John Croman, who mused about the politics of crime and punishment. “You never hear anyone at the Legislature saying ‘I want to make sentences shorter for this crime or that one,’” he said. The political incentive is all to make sentences longer.

The event, titled “Get Smart on Crime: New Directions in America’s Incarceration Policy,” and subtitled “After Ferguson — Building Trust between the criminal justice system and communities of color,” was put on by the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance.

Note: The comparison of U.S. incarceration rates with the global average and with other developed nations has been revised from an earlier version of this post to clarify and add some data that Uggen supplied later Thursday.