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"Smart people (like smart lawyers) can come up with very good explanations for mistaken points of view."

- Richard P. Feynman, Physicist

"There is a danger in clarity, the danger of over looking the subtleties of truth."

-Alfred North Whitehead

July 30, 2010

Incarceration Rates

The latest issue of the Economist had an article on the high rate of incarceration in the United States. Rough Justice According to data collected by Kings College London’s International Center for Prison Studies, the United States has the highest prison population in the World, 756 prisoners per 100,000 people in the country.[i] This compares with 153 per 100,000 for England, 89 per 100,000 for Germany, 96 per 100,000 for France, 116 per 100,000 for Canada.

From a state perspective, Wisconsin has about 23,380 people in prison for an incarceration rate of 374 per 100,000. (These data do not include incarceration in jail, while the Kings College data did.) Wisconsin spends over $1.2 billion on its Department of Corrections. Minnesota has 9,406 people in prison for an incarceration rate of 179 per 100,000. Minnesota spends $521 million dollars on its Department of Corrections.[ii]

How do the crime rates compare. In 2007, the latest statistics I could find, Wisconsin had a violent crime rate of 291 per 100,000 while Minnesota had a violent crime rate of 289 per 100,000. Wisconsin had a property crime rate of 2,838 per 100,000 and Minnesota had a property crime rate of 3,037.[iii]

From an economist’s perspective, a taxpayer in Wisconsin has to pay a much greater part of their income on incarceration than Minnesota to obtain similar crime rates. What is going on here? Why does Wisconsin need to incarcerate a considerably greater proportion of our population than Minnesota? My wife is from Minnesota and she tells me it is because all the people from Minnesota are above average and that they are kinder to their elderly, especially elderly quarterbacks. I believe that the reasons are more complicated than that.

Do these crime rates and incarceration rates tell us something about the health of our society? The moral fiber of our citizens? The appropriate use of prison in our society? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I do have those questions.


[i] Walmsley, Roy, (2009) World Prison Population List (eight edition), International Centre for Prison Studies, King’s College London-School of Law. http://www.kcl.ac.uk/depsta/law/research/icps/news.php?id=203

[ii] West, Heather C., 2010, Prison Inmates at Mid-Year 2009 Statistical Table, Bureau of Justice Statistics, USDOJ

[iii] Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Crime in the United States” USDOJ http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2010/tables/10s0297.pdf

The views expressed in this blog are solely the views of the author(s) and do not represent the views of any other public official or organization.

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