ADVANTAGES

No matter how we approach the question, then, the United States does turn out to be relatively punitive in its treatment of offenders, and very much so for less serious crimes. Yet in an important sense, this way of looking at the issue of "punitiveness" sidesteps the deeper implications of the huge international differences in incarceration. For it is arguably the incarceration rate itself, not the rate per offense, that tells us the most important things about a nation's approach to crime and punishment. An incarceration rate that is many times higher than that of comparable countries is a signal that something is very wrong. Either the country is punishing offenders with a severity far in excess of what is considered normal in otherwise similar societies, or it is breeding a far higher level of serious crime, or both. In the case of the U.S., it is indeed both. As we've seen, the evidence suggests that we are more punitive when it comes to property and drug crimes, but not as far from the norm in punishing violent crimes. We have an unusually high incarceration rate, then, partly because of our relatively punitive approach to nonviolent offenses, and partly because of our high level of serious violent crime. On both counts, the fact that we imprison our population at a rate six to ten times higher than that of other advanced societies means that we rely far more on our penal system to maintain social order--to enforce the rules of our common social life--than other industrial nations do. In a very real sense, we have been engaged in an experiment, testing the degree to which a modern industrial society can maintain public order through the threat of punishment. That is the more profound meaning of the charge that America is an unusually punitive country. We now need to ask how well the experiment has worked.

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