United States = incarceration nation

Ariel Werner, familiar to readers of the Daily Dose, makes her Phoenix debut this week with a short report on debt-related incarceration in Rhode Island:

Every day, an average of 18 people are incarcerated at the Adult Correctional Institutions (ACI) due to their inability to pay court fines, according to a new report issued by the Rhode Island Family Life Center (FLC), a Providence-based nonprofit that provides reentry planning for and policy advocacy on behalf of ex-offenders. 

Prior to the 19th century, debtor’s prisons — facilities for the incarceration of those unable to pay debts — were common in both the United Kingdom and United States. The UK abolished imprison-ment for debt with the Debtors Act of 1869, and the US eliminated the practice of imprisoning debtors at the federal level in 1833. Though many states followed suit, it remains possible for state govern-ments to incarcerate for debts relating to fraud, child-support, and alimony, fines levied as part of a sentence, restitution, and court costs. 

The US Supreme Court, in Bearden v. Georgia (1983), Tate v. Short (1971), and Payne v. Mississippi (1984), has ruled that individuals cannot be summarily jailed for debts when unable to pay and mandates the consideration of alternative measures before incarceration for debt.

Yet the FLC report, “Court Debt and Related Incarceration in Rhode Island from 2005 through 2007,” explains how our criminal justice system has propagated the practice of incarcerating debtors and the effect of this practice on the state’s already overcrowded prison.

Meanwhile, as the NYT reported yesterday, the US has a remarkably high rate of incarceration, even compared with more populous and authoritarian China:

The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population. But it has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.

Indeed, the United States leads the world in producing prisoners, a reflection of a relatively recent and now entirely distinctive American approach to crime and punishment. Americans are locked up for crimes — from writing bad checks to using drugs — that would rarely produce prison sentences in other countries. And in particular they are kept incarcerated far longer than prisoners in other nations.

Criminologists and legal scholars in other industrialized nations say they are mystified and appalled by the number and length of American prison sentences.

The United States has, for instance, 2.3 million criminals behind bars, more than any other nation, according to data maintained by the International Center for Prison Studies at King’s College London.

China, which is four times more populous than the United States, is a distant second, with 1.6 million people in prison. (That number excludes hundreds of thousands of people held in administrative detention, most of them in China’s extrajudicial system of re-education through labor, which often singles out political activists who have not committed crimes.)

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