The United States is Underpoliced and Overprisoned

Daniel Bier has a nice rundown on the ratio of police to prison spending comparing the United States to Europe. The US spends less on police and more on prisons than any European country.

Moreover, this is not because Europe spends less on criminal justice. Surprisingly, there is very little correlation between total spending and the ratio of police to prison spending. What we see in the graph below, for example, is that Europe is on the right, indicating more police to prison spending but not noticeably below the US states on total spending as a percent of GDP.

As I have argued before, the United States is underpoliced and overprisoned.


Looks like some trend of lower ratios in richer European states. Prison as a luxury good sustained by richer states, and US "over" imprisonment (partially) explained by high US wealth?

Shocking News From The World of Science/licensed liars

Simple solution from The Boondock Saints, "Do not kill. Do not rape. Do not steal."

More likely, it's not the numbers of policemen/women, it's the vastly higher numbers of criminals in the USA; mostly democrats.

Two questions. Who pays for such research? How can I get on the gravy train?

Even if what you say is true, more police could push crime down, particularly street crime.

America puts people into prison for much longer for the same crime.

The result isn't safer streets but higher prison bills higher recidivism rates.

Criminals don't care if their sentence is 8 years or 10 years. They care about getting caught.

For every three people we keep in prison for a year, we could have hired another police officer.

We should make that tradeoff. Punish people with shorter sentences but greatly increase their chance of getting caught. That will do far more to reduce crime.

> America puts people into prison for much longer for the same crime.

The recidivism rates in the US are indeed very high (search on Daniel Horowitz writing on this). 68% of all release state prisoners are arrested within 3 year, 79% within 6 years and 83% in 9 years.

But what makes you think that shorter sentences would fix this? The idea that we put people in jail for long periods for minor crimes is false. They usually get long crimes because they had already been given a pass (probation) and then were found with a firearm while on probation.

Probation says "OK, you screwed up and we caught you. Here's a slap on the wrist and if you don't do it again, all is forgiven". That is the shortest sentence you can give someone.

But when they break probation and are found with guns, baggies, a dead drug dealer and a few pounds of meth, what should be done that point? Another probation?

Is a 20 year prison sentence a bigger deterrent to crime than a 15 year sentence? I'm skeptical.

Imagine if we took that $150K to $200K (cost of five years in prison at the low end) and spent it on preventing crime instead.

Yes, it keeps that criminal off the streets for five more years, and makes him an old man when he gets out.

BS. Our crime rate has been dropping precipitously since we began Truth in Sentencing laws. It is directly related to the prison population. Putting criminals in cages stops them from committing crimes. Imagine that!

I might agree that recidivism rates are high, but the relevant question is, "Compared to what alternative punishment?" I support corporal punishment as a cheaper and more effective punishment.

@M - yes, I think you're right. In Greece, due to overcrowding in prisons (that is, not enough prisons being built), first time murderers get only 7 years and even premeditated murder, my lawyer says, involving a hit man and extensive planning, only got 10 years. A mass murderer (killing home-alone grannies for their property) got unsupervised visits home from prison, on weekends, and after a few years one day just disappeared. That's why in Greece if you're a tourist who dies on holiday, likely you'll make the Daily Mail scandal sheet for about a week and that will be about it for justice. Actually same is true IMO for Thailand and most places that cater to western tourists.

Why is Europe the standard? Maybe Europe is overpoliced and underprisoned?

So, you favor more crime, less prevention of crime?

Ie, along with the second amendment you favor more guns used to kill more people, followed by prison, rather than the European fewer guns, many fewer murders, and fewer in prison?

How else am I going to protect myself from my wife’s big black boyfriend?

More police can be associated with less liberty. Greater surveillance. More threats of punishment for malum prohibitum.

Less imprisonment can be associated with less justice.

Do police prevent crime or simply investigate it after it happens?

Both. There's a reason many restaurants will give cops free/discounted meals: having police there reduces crime, and more than makes up for the loss they take on the occasional meal.

Of course, the options aren't limited to "prevent" and "investigate". Cops can also create crimes. The concept of a speed trap is proof of this. Asset forfeiture is another example--innocent people have had their property taken at an alarming rate, due to alleged (sometimes flagrantly fraudulent) "investigations". You have to remember, police are not infrequently used to generate income for the city/township/county/state in the USA. And we are very, very good at squeezing five quarters out of every dollar when we put our minds to it.

How much restaurant crime do you think is happening?

"Ie, along with the second amendment you favor more guns used to kill more people, followed by prison, rather than the European fewer guns, many fewer murders, and fewer in prison?"

US murder rates without guns are higher than [most of] Europe, no?

Americans are more murderous than Europeans. This is not "caused by guns" because they're magical murder-talismans.

(The exact causes are debatable, but are some mixture of cultures and demographics; perhaps the Albion's Seed border-reaver hypothesis strikes yet again.)

Further (sadly, the best data I have is from 2006, because BJS can't be bothered to do this every year, but I have no reason to believe any of it has seriously changed), most felons in prison aren't there for killing anyone.

Murder and manslaughter account for less than 1% of felony convictions (though they are naturally almost 100% likely to result in prison time, vs. 70% or so for "all felonies").

Drug and property crimes are about 60% of felony convictions.

The US simply does not have a prison "problem", "because guns".

Sigivald: perhaps the Albion's Seed border-reaver hypothesis strikes yet again

It's hard to imagine anything like that mattering to the overall rate in the US, because anyone actually descending from borderers are a thin stream in US Whites, let alone the US homicide rate.

It also doesn't make a huge amount of sense in the US context - murder rates aren't high in any of the Appalachian region where borderers are supposed to have settled (no highs in Kentucky, West Virginia). Other than % African-American and urbanisation (both higher homicide), it's hard to see a huge pattern in US states...

Worse, if effects persisted, you'd also expect the UK to have peaks in murder or violence along Cumbria and Northumbria (the borderlands). And you don't.

Not due to genetic replacement of "original" borderers in Britain either. The marches still preserve nice little genetic cluster -

The Albion's Seed idea of "borderer" culture, at best, used to matter a long time ago. But today it must have faded to insignificance, at least as far as violence is concerned, if it ever did matter.

The exact cause is easy to see: Blacks and Hispanics. We have a severe problem with two ethnic minority groups that violate the laws by a factor of 8 to 10 times higher than non-Hispanic whites. Other minority groups such as Asians dont have these problems in large measure. And it isnt because Asian crime is non existent. It is confined and small.

I have always wondered about that. There's an entire genera of blog posts that can best be described as "Let's mock Americans for being different from Europe!" The idea that we're different because we have different cultures is never given as a potential answer--it's always presented that any deviation from Europe is inherently bad, and this stance is never defended.

japan is the same. More police, fewer prisons, much less crime. You know where it’s like the states? Central and South America. Not great company.

How does the rate of imprisonment of Japanese Americans compare with the rate of imprisonment of Japanese Japanese? My guess is pretty comparable. Maybe the key difference between the two countries is the inherent criminality of our respective demographics.

Again, though, that doesn't address the issue. You're still doing nothing more than pointing at a difference and going "See? This is bad!"

What people fail to realize is that the USA is a fairly heterogeneous area. Even breaking the USA down into various states isn't useful; we need to break the USA down by the various subcultures that exist within it. If, for example, inner-city gang violence is driving this, you'll see very different results for cities than for rural areas (the majority of the nation in territory, and about half the nation in population).

But some USA states have lower crime rates that some European countries.
At the bottom of the link are the US states, Canada provinces. It is interesting:

Yep. Fifty percent of US counties have zero homicides.

The majority of homicides are in only four US counties. And within those counties, they are further concentrated in neighborhoods.

As the American Empire collapses, America needs to jail more and more dissidents. Yet, as Mr. Amalrik pointed out, such a situation can be sustained indefinitely. Soon or later, the repressive apparatus will falter and the desperate, revolting masses will level everything in their way. It will have been the end. The knell of the American Empire sounds. The killers are killed.

Wonder if those European stats change in the coming years with all the jobless young men coming from Africa.

Sure, immigration from Algeria to France or Turkey to Germany, started on 2016 with Merkel.

PS, look at the deportation of Eritreans, not the official discourse.

Are you suggesting that the American data is explained by our larger share of African immigrants?

Prisons aren’t effective for the incarceration of black men.

Yes, it is.

Yes, it's those Jamaican and Nigerian immigrants filling our prisons.

It only takes one Jamaican Blackman to fill a prison if you know what I mean.

There's no money to be made in policing, but fortunes to be made in imprisoning. Capitalism at work. Okay, that's cynical. What's created the enormous prison population is partly the result of longer sentences and minimum sentences. In the 1970s, when mandatory minimum sentences became the rage, I was working for my state's legislature. One of my duties (at the judiciary committee) was to write bill summaries, including the estimated cost of the measure. For each mandatory minimum bill (there were dozens), I would calculate the cost by determining the daily cost for a prisoner and multiplying it by the difference between the mandatory minimum and the average sentence served for the particular crime. Howls of protest came from the sponsors of the bills. According to them, I did not understanding incentives: the mandatory minimums would significantly reduce crime, thereby reducing not increasing total costs to the state. Maybe they understood the behavior of criminals better than I: to the sponsors of the bills, criminals are as rational as, well, the economists at GMU. After complaining to our chairman and the leadership, it was decided that there would be no estimated cost included in bill summaries for mandatory minimums. There, solved that problem.

"There's no money to be made in policing, but fortunes to be made in imprisoning. Capitalism at work."

From the Objectivist perspective, private prisons are wrong. Policing--including prisons--are the proper role of the government, which is supposed to act as a neutral third party (with varying degrees of success, true). To privatize prison is every bit as repugnant as to nationalize industry; it's attacks the very foundation of a free society.

After reading the article, my first thought (based instinct, not empirical data) was this:

No profit in police; lots of profit opportunities in imprisonment because of America's use of private, for-profit prisons.

Most of the money spent on prisons goes to "correctional officers." Not surprisingly, in places like California they have a strong union, high compensation, and officially support putting lots of people in prison. I suppose in a way that's capitalism.

Reminds me of something Foucault wrote about prisons. America, with its feudal tendencies, still desires to punish the body.

Yes. Feudalism is not a European thing. It's entirely American.

Congrats Benny -- you will never top Jim Acosta, but you have earned 2nd place in the Internet Moron of the Week Awards.

Of course I wrote no such thing but I'm glad that conservatards are still such shameless liars.

Foucault never addressed feudalism (a European phenomenon) in the context of prisons. Or vice versa. He wrote about Bentham’s panopticon and the surveillance state (obviously much later developments). Re: punishing the body he wrote about making suffering visible to onlookers in the medieval period. As for America, he was surprisingly positive (for an arrogant, plagiarizing West hating French philosopher), discovering late in his life how much fun he could have using drugs and bathhouses in the Bay Area. The good that came out of this was his conversion to a kind of libertarianism and a renewed conservative respect for bourgeois thinkers he had always disparaged or ignored: Kant for one.

Yes, whereas enlightened Europeans have moved on to the much more sophisticated practice of punishing thought crimes. Much more progressive.

european prisons are not for profit. that's the difference.

Sad. While Brazil opposes communism and banned Venezuelan, Nicaraguan and Cuban representatives from President Captain Bolsonaro's inaugurations and officially refused to recognize Mr. Maduro's new term, America supports communism.

Comparing relative expenditures on prisons across countries is fallacious. You punish the criminals you have, not the criminals you want. Despite our relatively large prison population, it should be much larger given the crimes that are committed. We are constrained by costs and prison overcrowding. On the whole though we could have less imprisonment as punishment if we had corporal punishment back. It is far more effective and less expensive than locking people in cages. What we want is residents who obey our laws, not merely residents who are unable to break our laws. Prison has a poor track record of penitence, deterrence and rehabilitation.

If we get rid of prisons where will I go to find so much black dick in one place?

The state coercion complex is all about money, from the cop on the beat to the Supreme Court. The prison industry is just one part of it.

I'm going to presume that people in prison are there because they committed crimes. I'm persuaded that they are not there because of the War on Drugs (most prisoners are violent offenders) and that many drug nominal drug charges are just the easiest thing to convict on for otherwise violent offenders.

So if they are criminals likely to commit crimes...where should they be? If we aren't going to lock them up for innocents safety, we have to reform or deter them. How do you do that? Is Alex in favor of say bringing back corporal punishment? When this results in lots of black people getting beaten to straighten them out, will Alex not cry racist.

The police question is different too. What would these cops do? I think Alex is against broken windows policing. He also seems to think cops are trigger happy racists that cause more problems than they solve, so why more cops?

What of the surveillance state? Does a libertarian want a cop with a camera on every street corner?

I'm not against more police per se, might even welcome it, but it's not clear to me that it solves our prison problem.

P.S. Europe doesn't have as many black people, apples oranges.

"Europe doesn't have as many black people"

There it is, know your "libertarians."

Blacks commit a highly disproportionate share of criminal offenses in the U.S., so surely this is relevant?

Rapes where they finish with kicking in a broken bottle was unheard of in Europe until they got a significant minority of moslems and africans.

Thank you for putting that in quotes.

Because real libertarians deny science and ignore reality?

There is some good news, Hazel.

As President Catain Bolsonaro says, if one does not want to be jailed, one should not commit crimes.

1) Sentences are largely too long. Crime has an aging curve, and we imprison many people who are likely aged out of criminality. The incentives for prosecutors have pushed toward overcharging. I agree that reducing prison populations would require reducing punishment for violent criminals. (Ideally, sentences would be quick and consistent but shorter -- there isn't much evidence criminals are affected by the difference between three and ten years, whereas they are affected by the chances they get caught and punished.)

2) The prison system is a miserable hellhole. Doing almost anything to treat prisoners as full human beings would be progress. Believe me, I realize we don't have the same prison population as Norway, but our prisons are structured to create a permanent unemployable underclass with gang ties.

3) Police play an important role in deterring crime and in quickly bringing perpetrators to justice. Our police forces (my assertion; obviously these are not objectively provable claims) lack accountability, human capital, and a professional mindset for their role (i.e. they're servants of the people, not rulers or invading armies). Even assuming this is all true, police are powerful and I'm not sure what to do to overcome this.

"The prison system is a miserable hellhole. Doing almost anything to treat prisoners as full human beings would be progress. Believe me, I realize we don't have the same prison population as Norway, but our prisons are structured to create a permanent unemployable underclass with gang ties."

As President Captain Bolsonaro points out, maybe they should not commit crimes. Who spares the rod, dooms the lamb.

Chance of getting caught is a big factor in deterring crime. However, the impression I get (not just in violent crime, but even white collar fraud I've observed) is that the people who should be deterring it already know who the offenders are and how to stop it, but are held back from doing so (for understandable/unavoidable if not always commendable reasons). So if the cops already know what they need to do but can't, adding more cops won't help.

Similarly, if we want to have deterring punishments but not extended prison stays then the punishment has to be pretty short but severe. I'd be OK with lashing a violent offender rather then putting him away for ten years, but I'm a barbarian.

"So if the cops already know what they need to do but can't, adding more cops won't help."

But if the cops know and there are more cops then wouldn't that act to reduce the amount of crime, because it would reduce the opportunity?

Seems reasonable. I'm not sure about #2, though. Maryland, for example, has a number of programs aimed at helping ex-convicts reintegrate, find work, housing, get stuff expunged from their records, etc. My impression, based on my limited reading on the subject, is that these mostly don't work, unfortunately, due to the fact that a lot of these people were out of the labor force to begin with, so if you manage to find them employment, they don't last very long at it. In other words, I'm not convinced that it's the prison system's fault that the recidivism rate is as high as it is.

I think reaping tangible non-util rewards would likely require reworking the prisons themselves, which would probably require a moral shift -- left or right, Americans love their punishment. I'm in favor of the post-incarceration programs you describe, but realistically I agree they're not likely to have a major impact.

Under a pure deterrence / damage limitation model, sentencing should be designed around aging out, correctly.

But its not so clear that's what justice, as people experience it, is about, rather than the likes of "A life for a life". If we are guided by the interests of the state, a state where the people feel justice is not done may not endure well. But even without that, there are solid grounds in moral philosophy for the retributive principle (Kant argued so for ex).

Consider how people feel justice is often not done in white collar crime cases, on the basis of limited retribution, even though there is no deterrent case for anything further. (I add this example because some folk seem to feel retributive sentencing against the poor or black is inherently wrong, while its OK against the rich and its always good to catch them in the contradiction. You may well not believe anything like this!)

Police expenditures are also related to:
1. Collectively bargained salaries and benefits
2. Cost of living
3. Population density
4. Labor to Capital ratio

Countries with socialized medicine will have lower expenditures ceteris paribus based on health insurance costs. These costs should be deducted from US expenditures for a level comparison.

That being said, greater population density would tend to decrease cost-per-capita, no? Policing 1000 people at .025 people per square mile in South Dakota I'd think would be more expensive than policing 1000 people at 2500 per square mile in a city.
Or is your expectation that greater pop density is more difficult/expensive to police?

Hard to say. I'd expect the crime rate to be lower in South Dakota. Proximity increases opportunity. And, I suppose, friction.

Given that police fatality shoot people > 18x more often in the US, we would save much more money on prisons with an increase in police force.

Alex, if you keep referring to places like Denmark and Luxembourg as "countries," you are never going to learn anything. They are mid-sized cities.

Anyone paying attention knows that the US has a very serious under-incarceration problem given our crime rate -- and this is why our crime rate is unacceptably high. Millionaire Dem politicians will tell you to suck it up and live with the crime, because they need the criminal votes, but you do not have to listen to these vile people, nor their enablers in academia.

Anyone paying attention knows that the US has a very serious under-incarceration problem given our crime rate -- and this is why our crime rate is unacceptably high.

Or are we under policed? Better to stop the crime before it happens.

What's up with Illinois? Putting the Dutch to shame.

Maybe our cops are just more efficient at catching criminals!

I know it’s anecdotal but I started reading about dumb criminals a while back and if be inclined to say that our cops could indeed be more efficient than European cops, but some of our criminals are indeed surpassingly stupid.

Even though all the cited data come from 2016, we can agree perhaps to treat the cited US & European police and prison data as relics of the 20th century.

Our 21st century, of course, may soon pose 22nd century solutions. Capital punishment for one will be forever eliminated from terrestrial human societies at about the time the far side of the moon (subject to just as much light and shade as the near side of the moon, our stupid science journalists' and editors' stupid notions to the contrary) becomes home to Earth's penal colonies. Lifetime sentences (and less) that remove Earth from convicts' views and convicted criminals from Earth's view surely will help Earth's law-abiding citizens abide.

(How odd a development might it be if both prisons and astronomical observatories one day come to populate the Moon's far side so densely that astronomers become the custodians and monitors of lunar prisons.)

It's worth noting the footnotes: "Spending totals...does not include DC or the federal government." IIRC, most euro countries don't have an equivalent split.

More generally, is spending even the right metric? The chart could just mean that our prisons are unusually nice (possibly due to the accumulated effects of pro se litigation)

This is all very interesting, but nevertheless inconclusive. More data, please? How do expenditures vis-a-vis policing vs. imprisonment correlate to crime statistics based on numbers of incidents, types of incidents and costs? Also some attempt to do this in such a way as to separate causality from correlation would be really helpful.

I agree here. Comparisons of imprisonment compared to violent crime would be more insightful.

Most people would agree too many drug offenders, so lets put that to one side. The reality is America has more violent crime than, say, Belgium.

It will also be interesting to see if prison sentences in Europe get longer if violent crime from ME immigrants into Europe increases over time.

Meh. The police per capita ratio of the US looks very much in line with Europe.

I think these numbers are due soley to the expenses of prison.

Maybe if, compared to some other countries, the US has a larger and more dangerous criminal class that deserves greater punishment, the problem isn't with the size and effectiveness of the police forces or the uninhabited prison system. Maybe, instead, there's something truly wrong with American society and culture that produces so many anti-social individuals. What is it that makes Americans such advocates of theft and violence but isn't found in places like Italy or Iceland or Argentina?

Black people in the United States commit approximately half of all murders despite constituting about an eighth of the population. So comparing imprisoned populations to countries with completely different demographics is super dumb, or perhaps dishonest. Americans of primarily German heritage are approximately as likely to be in prison as Germans of primarily German heritage.

Black men’s giant penises make it easy for them to cause injury when erect even if it is unintended.

The ratio of spend on police vs spend on prison has no meaning, afaik. Aside from its weak correlation to poverty, and of course government spending, what the holy heck does GDP have to do with it??? Don't we want the ratio of police:prisoners to be approaching 1/∞ ? Perhaps our police are simply more effective. And consider what the alternative is to all those high school drop-outs: if they can't become police, then what could they do? Is it or is it not true that in the USA the main job requirement for a cop is to show up for work?

"the United States is underpoliced and overprisoned." I infer that there's more money to be made in imprisoning than in policing.

I swear is there any worse apples to oranges fallacy than comparing US and Europe with no data correction?

Consider France. In the France there are 145 prisoners per 100K population; the US has 724. Clearly the US can release some prisoners ... okay who? Of those 724, 55 are convicted murders. 50 are convicted rapists. It is not possible for the US to reach French levels of incarceration without literally releasing rapists and murders early.

In total the US has 220 prisoners convicted of violent offenses per 100 K.

That is more prisoners than the entire incarceration burden in:
Every single country on Alex's chart. Poland comes closest with 209/100K.

Incarcerating violent criminals is going to be costly. Murders tend to cost more than rapist who cost more than muggers. When you have such a heavily load of violent criminals your prison costs will inevitably be higher.

There simply is no way to get to European levels of incarceration expenses without letting "free" the people society generally wants locked up: murderers, rapists, and those who violently assault others.

The US does not face European tradeoffs regarding prisoners. Never has. Likely never will. So can please quite with these utterly specious comparisons?

Japan's incarceration rate is 41 per 100K. Why does Europe lock up people at such a high rate? What is wrong with them?

Rather than incarcerate so many black people, we could set up reservations for them. As a bonus, that would free up a lot of prime real estate in the cities.

Sorry, but there's no low hanging fruit here.

First, contrary to popular belief, it is not true that the prisons are full of non-violent drug offenders. In state prisons, about 20% of prisoners are there for a drug charge as the top count. Most commonly trafficking. Most often cocaine. Marijuana possession? Naw. Moreover, if you look at one of these incarcerated "drug" offenders, they often have lengthy rap sheets and usually plea down to the drug charge. These aren't guys you'd want in your neighborhood. As Richard Pryor said of his visit to a prison, "Thank God, we got penitentiaries!"

Here is an article in Slate where the author is honest enough to admit we'd have to release serious criminals to get any significant reduction.

Isn't a states-vs-.countries comparison on any fiscal issue bound to be apples vs. oranges on its face?

Comparing the US to Europe is certainly a bit of an apples to oranges comparison.

But why does Belgium for example have such a high rate of murders compared to it's neighbor the Netherlands?

Belgium: 1.55
Netherlands: 0.55

Maybe just a historical artifact I suppose.

Is there data for other countries, especially the other European settler countries like Aus, Canada, Chile,...? This might be an old/new world phenomenon rather than a US / everyone else phenomenon.

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