Suppose every federal drug offender were released today. That would cut the incarceration rate to about 693 inmates per 100,000 population. Suppose further that every drug offender in a state prison were also released. That would get the rate down to 625. It’s a significant drop, no question — these hypothetical measures would shrink the overall prison population by about 14 percent. (There isn’t data from BJS on the most serious charges faced by those in local jails, so let’s assume that no jail inmates are released in these scenarios.)Meantime, congratulations to Judge Moreno on 25 years on the bench. He's been a pillar of this District and has done a lot to transform the court for the better. This weekend he celebrated with his law clerks from all over the country who flew in to be with him.
But let’s have some international context. Even in that extreme hypothetical situation, the U.S. would still be an incarceration outlier. Even without its many inmates who are convicted of drug charges, the U.S. still leads the world in imprisoning people. Next is the U.S. Virgin Islands, with a rate of 542 per 100,000 people, followed by Turkmenistan at 522 and Cuba at 510. Russia’s rate is 463. (See the bottom of this post for the full list of international incarceration rates. The international data is from the International Centre for Prison Studies, and I’ve restricted the list to countries with a population of at least 100,000.)
Locking up drug offenders is only part of the larger story behind mass incarceration. Other reasons for the high rates include the severity of nondrug sentencing, the attitudes of judges and prosecutors, a high rate of violent crime such as murder, and rising crime rates in the 1970s and 1980s. “The increase in U.S. incarceration rates over the past 40 years is preponderantly the result of increases both in the likelihood of imprisonment and in lengths of prison sentences,” the National Research Council wrote in a report last year.
Reformers interested in ending mass incarceration — or at least in getting America’s rates in line with those internationally — will have to think far more broadly.1 It’s a much thornier problem than that.
ADDED -- I'm told by one of my favorite tipsters that Judge Moreno's clerks (more than 40 of them were here this weekend) raised money to start a scholarship in Judge Moreno's name at the University of Miami. Really really nice.