National addiction to incarceration?

By David C. Fathi, U.S. program director at Human Rights Watch
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — The United States is the world's leading jailer. On any given day, more than 2.3 million people are locked in our prisons and jails -- more than in any other country.

Just how bad is it? The U.S. has less than 5 percent of the world's population, but about a quarter of its prisoners. We have more prisoners than China -- a country with a repressive government and more than four times the population of the U.S. We lock up 756 people for every 100,000 U.S. residents -- that's about five times as many as England and Wales (152 per 100,000), more than six times as many as Canada (116) and 10 times as many as Sweden (74).

Until recently, you didn't hear much about this. Aside from the people directly affected, most of whom have little political clout, our dubious distinction as the world's leading prison nation was a matter of concern only to a handful of criminologists and human rights activists. The conventional wisdom was that most Americans liked their criminal justice system pretty much the way it was, and that any elected official who suggested locking up fewer criminals had better start looking for another job.

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