Justice Policy Institute Issues Comparative Incarceration Report

The Justice Policy Institute ("JPI") issued a policy report in April, 2011, Finding Direction: Expanding Criminal Justice Options By Considering Policies of Other Nations, comparing the incarceration policies and practices of the United States and five other Western democracies: Australia, Canada, Finland, Germany, and England and Wales. The report was authored by JPI Associate Director Amanda Petteruti and Communications Associate Jason Fenster, and followed-up on an earlier academic paper, The Use of Incarceration in the United States and other Western Democracies, by Douglas B. Weiss, M.A. and Doris MacKenzie, Ph.D. The five comparison countries were chosen due to their basic similarities to the United States, in that the countries are democracies, have high levels of stability and legitimacy, have large economies, share a common understanding of human rights, each values education and higher education, and each had similar employment rates.

The report, while expressly stating it was not a critique of U.S. society as a whole, and was not arguing for a complete overhaul of social and economic systems, noted that the United States incarcerates more people [about 2.4 million] than any of the comparison countries, and at a higher rate [748 per 100,000], but the U.S. is not any safer. "That is, having a higher incarceration rate (like in the U.S.) does not necessarily mean a lower rate of victimization." Between 1988-2008, the crime rate fell 36% in the U.S., but incarceration rates increased 104 percent. Since 1980, the number of people incarcerated in the U.S. has increased 458%; the U.S. now has about five percent of the world's population, but has 25% of the world's prisoners. Drug offense incarcerations have increased in the U.S. 1,412% from 1980 to 2006, although drug use in the U.S. is not necessarily at a higher rate than in the comparison countries. When one includes pretrial detainees and those remanded to custody, the U.S. has in custody about 26 times the number held in England and Wales, 32 times the number held in Germany, 711 times the number held in Finland, 59 times the number held in Canada, and 78 times the number held in Australia. The average length of sentences in the U.S. are also significantly higher than are found in the comparison countries. For example, the average (for all sentences) length of a sentence in the U.S. is 63 months; in Australia, the average length is 36 months; in Germany, the average length is between one and two years. The report suggests that mandatory minimum sentences may be a significant factor in the higher incarceration rates in the U.S.

Pretrial release on bail varies in the countries. Australia, Canada, the U.S., and England and Wales have a bail system, which, the report suggests, likely contributes to the number of people held in custody. Germany has a bail system, but it is infrequently used. Finland does not have a bail mechanism, but has a procedure for remand determinations within four days of arrest. Only the U.S. permits commercial bail [four states have banned commercial bail, however].

Drug use is viewed in the U.S., and, increasingly in England and Wales, as a criminal justice problem, instead of a public health problem. One study cited in the report indicates that substance abuse and addiction cost the federal, state, and local governments $467.7 billion in 2005, with only 2% of that amount being spent on treatment and prevention.

Release and reentry policies vary in the comparison countries. Australia, Finland, and Germany have automatic parole dates after the person has served a portion of the sentence. England and Wales use both court and parole board determinations, Canada relies primarily on parole board decisions, and in the U.S. there are parole board decisions, but also 'truth-in-sentencing' and mandatory minimum sentences which impact parole board authority. In the U.S. and England and Wales, parole supervision policies are more "supervision-heavy," and the "parole system seems to be designed to catch a person doing something wrong, rather than provide the services to prevent an offense." The report suggests that a shift to "a social work modality rather than one focusing on policing and surveillance modality," would reduce the number of technical violators returned to prison.

Reentry services are more automatically available to persons released from custody in the other countries. For example, in Finland, everyone released from prison has access to services, even where the person is not in a close-supervision status. In contrast, in the U.S., 200,000 people are released after serving the maximum term, or the mandatory minimum sentence, without parole or supervision, and without access to necessary resources. The reentry policies in the U.S. are not standardized, and they vary from locale to locale. The focus of reentry policies in the U.S. is generally geared more toward housing, education and jobs, and not on mental health and behavior concerns; the comparison countries take a more rehabilitative approach which combines both the social aspects (i.e., housing, jobs, etc.) and psychological aspects.

The report noted that in the U.S. and England and Wales the criminal justice systems are more adversarial than are the systems in the other comparison countries. In Finland and Germany, prosecutors are more neutral, and ostensibly less pressured to obtain criminal convictions. In the U.S., fewer funds are provided to public defense; the prosecution gets almost double what is spent on public defense. For example, the U.S. spends .0002 percent of the per capita GDP on defense per person; in England and Wales the expenditure is .20 percent per person, and public defense receives almost four times the funding than does the prosecution. The U.S. also has many elected judges and prosecutors, who may be pressured by media and political groups. In contrast, the officials in the comparison countries are usually appointed and are career civil servants.

The report outlined a number of policy opportunities, or suggestions:

  • end "zero tolerance" policing;
  • change the philosophy of policing, moving away from a surveillance and arrest focus to one more neighborhood-focused;
  • increase pretrial releases;
  • end commercial bail;
  • utilize day fines, or structured fines, proportionate to the offense and aligned to the amount of money a person earns each day;
  • eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses;
  • provide treatment first;
  • use a public health response to drug offenses;
  • implement harm reduction programs, e.g., needle-exchange;
  • increase conditional releases to parole;
  • shift parole from a supervision modality to one of service and social work;
  • include mental health and behavioral services in reentry programs;
  • include all person released from prison in reentry services, including where the person is not on parole;
  • raise the age of criminal responsibility; end transfers to adult courts;
  • provide services to juveniles, before incarceration;
  • invest in socially marginalized and underserved communities.

Sources:http://www.justicepolicy.org/research/2322. Executive Summary: http://www.justicepolicy.org/uploads/justicepolicy/documents/finding_direction-execut ive_summary.pdf. Full report: http://www.justicepolicy.org/uploads/justicepolicy/documents/finding_direction-full_report.pdf