New Internationalist

New Internationalist Issue 282

Issue 282

Crime and Punishment - The Facts

Rates for serious violent crime are more or less stable but prison populations and the resources expended on the crime-control industry are both expanding rapidly.
While the US leads, the trend is the same almost everywhere.

Rates of incarceration

Prison Population graph.

Petty crime

Large numbers of people are being rounded up and are doing jail time for non-violent, often quite petty crime or even the failure to pay fines.

  • The 11,846,833 US arrests in 1994 included 86,733 for prostitution, 1,117,323 for drug offences, 600,345 for disorderly conduct, 105,781 for curfew and loitering violations, 200,863 runaways and 21,407 for vagrancy.1

  • In the UK in 1994 22,723 persons were imprisoned for defaulting on fines - an increase of 36% for men and 68% for women over 1990. In 80% of the cases the cost of incarceration exceeded the amount of the fine.2

  • In 1994 503 men and 260 women were imprisoned in Britain for their failure to pay fines for not having a TV licence.2

  • By the end of 1994 there were 5.1 million in the US on probation, in prison, or on parole - nearly 3% of the population.3

  • By the end of 1993 there were 47.8 million criminal histories on file in the US - nearly one for every five people.2 During the last 20 years US prison populations have quadrupled and some places spend more on incarcerating people than on educating them.4

The money trail

  • By the mid-1990s the US was spending in excess of $200 billion annually on the crime-control industry.8

  • An individual sentenced to five years for a $300 theft costs the public approximately $125,000.8

  • A Rand Corporation Study predicts California's new three-strikes-and-you're-out law will cost an additional $5.5 billion in criminal-justice expenditures.9

  • In Canada between 1971 and 1991 the number of police officers increased 41% and the number of private security guards increased by 126%. By 1991 private security forces outnumbered police by about 2 to 1.10
    Projected US expenditure
  • In the US two major companies account for 50% of private contracts to run prisons.11

  • Average yearly cost per inmate (1994)12 US $30,000, Aotearoa $40,000, Canada $51,000

  • New Conservative proposals for a tougher penal regime will increase the UK's incarcerated population by 28,000 and require the building of 48 new prisons at an estimated cost of $4.5 billion and an additional running cost of $945 million.13


    growth of private police in the USA

    Crime panic

    Public perceptions often outstrip the real threat:
    • In the US crime and law enforcement shows account for 30% of total television.5

    • An adult in the UK can expect to experience a robbery once every five centuries, an injurious assault once every century, a burglary every 40 years and the family car stolen every 50 years.6

    • A 1994 police report in the Australian state of New South Wales indicated that despite falling crime rates there was growing citizen alarm over crime. Some 58% feared being attacked, 48% feared being murdered and 25% feared having their children abused or sexually assaulted.6

    The war on drugs

    • Some 60% of prisoners in US penitentiaries are there for drug offences. In 1992 some 3,000 drug offenders with no record of violent crime in the last 15 years were sentenced to minimum terms of at least 5 years.3

    • The 1988 anti-drug abuse act imposes a mandatory minimum sentence of 5 years for possession of more than 5 grams of crack cocaine (predominantly consumed by blacks) on a first offence. You need to possess 100 times that amount of powdered cocaine (predominantly consumed by whites) to get a 5 year mandatory minimum.8

    • In 1992 the US Public Health Service estimated that 76% of illicit drug-users in the US were white, 14% black and 8% Hispanic. Yet in NY State 92% of all drug-possession offenders sentenced to prison were black and Hispanic and in California it was 71%.8

    The colour of justice

    • The number of white juveniles brought into the US criminal justice system increased by 1% during 1987-88; for non-whites it increased by 42%. In 1991 the US national incarceration rate was 310 per 100,000; amongst white males it was 352; amongst black males between the ages of 25 and 29 it was 6,301.3

    • One in three black men (aged 20-29) in LA county are jailed annually. In 1990 on an average day one in every four black men in the US were either in jail, prison or on probation/parole. In Washington DC 75% of African-American males could look forward to being arrested and jailed at least once before age 35.3

    • In Canada indigenous people make up some 5% of the total population but 32% of the federal inmate population.4 There has been a 204% increase (whites 23%) in the number of blacks incarcerated in the Canadian province of Ontario between 1986 and 1994.15

    • In the state of Western Australia aborigines make up 3% of the population yet account for 51% of all people sentenced by high courts to imprisonment - 75% for less than three months.6

    Cruel and unusual punishment

    • Between 1927 and 1956 58,000 prison inmates were sterilized in the US.8

    • There are currently 3,000 people on death-row in the US. There have been 400 wrongful capital convictions and 23 wrongful executions in the US this century. Some 20% of Georgia's death-row inmates are severely mentally handicapped. Texas spends an estimated $2.3 million on every capital case, three times the cost of a 40 year sentence.8

    • Between 1930 and 1972, 455 people were executed for rape in the US, 405 of them black.8

    1. Uniform Crime Statistics, FBI, 1994.
    2. The Imprisonment of Fine Defaulters, Penal Affairs Consortium, July 1995.
    3. Search and Destroy: African-American Males in the Criminal Justice System, Jerome Miller, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1996.
    4. The Slammer: The Crisis in Canada's Prison System, Kevin Marron, Doubleday, Toronto, 1996.
    5. The Persistent Prison: Rethinking Decarceration and Penal Reform, Maeve McMahon, University of Toronto Press, Toronto,1992.
    6. Restorative Justice; Healing the Effects of Crime, Jim Consedine; Ploughshares Publications, Christchurch, 1995.
    7. Prison Statistics England and Wales 1994; HM Prison Service.
    8. It's All the Rage; Crime and Culture, Wendy Kaminer, Addison-Wesley, New York, 1995.
    9. American Bar Association Journal, 1/95.
    10. Statscan Juristat, 1994, Vol.14 no. 10, Statistics Canada.
    11. Punishment for Profit; David Shichor, Sage,Thousand Oaks, 1995.
    12. Just Give Us the Facts, Ruth Morris, 1994.
    13. Sentencing and Early Release, Penal Affairs Consortium, December, 1995.
    14. The Crime Control Industry, Nils Christie, Routledge, New York, 1993.
    15. Globe and Mail, 16th January 1996.

    ©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996 [image, unknown] NI Home Page[image, unknown] Issue 282 Contents


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