Who supports the US penal system?
Tuesday, June 12, 2012
Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson

Gabriel Kreindler sent this comment about our post on the US penal system:

I wanted to share an article that may be related to your post on the US penal system. It speaks of Louisiana’s for-profit local prisons as a contributing factor for extremely high incarceration rates in that state. Local sheriffs make a profit from local prisons, so it’s in their interest that sentences stay harsh and prison populations very high.

http://www.nola.com/prisons/

and

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/ 05/26/opinion/blow- plantations-prisons-and- profits.html?ref=global-home#

It seems - on the face of it - a continuation of the perverted prison institutions that you described in your post on Mississippi.

This is a very important point we did not have space to get into in our post on the US penal system. Indeed it appears to be the case that many powerful constituencies profit from high prison populations, and this includes local law enforcement and of course, firms operating for-profit prisons and jails. It is plausible that reforming the penal system is particularly difficult because of these constituencies. This seems to be a very interesting and fairly unchartered research area.

Another comment on this post came from Albert Nock, who wrote:

You used that phrase [a uniquely American failure] in your post “Our penal system”. But you didn’t provide much discussion of other polities. Julius Uzoaba has in “A Comparative Study of the Incarceration Rates of Racial Minorities in Four Common Law Countries of Canada, US, England and Wales, and Australia”. Here are the last two sentences from the abstract:

“Currently in Canada, the Natives constitute about 3% of the general population but 17% of prisoners in the federal system. In Australia, the Natives currently make up 2% of the population but 20% of all prisoners. African Americans currently make up 13% of the US population and a staggering 46% of the sentenced prisoners. In England and Wales (1999/2000), Blacks comprised only 2% of the general population but 10.2% of the prison population.”

What makes the U.S. unique is the overall incarceration rate, rather than the overrepresentation of a minority population within the incarcerated population. Similarly, if you look at the former Confederate/Jim Crow states in the U.S, the ratio of the black to white incarceration rate is often even lower than in the north. Again the difference is a more generally punitive judicial system.

This is also right in an important sense: the United States is unusual not only in terms of locking up (and having under probation) a huge proportion of its African-American population but also in the sheer incarceration rate. If the United States had the same incarceration rate as Germany or Sweden, even the much higher likelihood of African Americans to end up in jail would not have created the same deep problems as we have today.

Though there are probably many reasons why the United States locks up so many people, one reason stands out: the war on drugs.

The political economy of the war on drugs is another major factor that has to be part of the equation (and one that we did not also have space to get into in our previous post). The story of ballooning incarceration rates in the United States is closely linked with the war on drugs, and one constituency that seems to benefit from this war is again the police force and the police unions. In fact, some have argued that other law enforcement agencies, in particular the CIA, benefit directly from the war on drugs (see in particular Gary Webb’s Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras and the Crack Cocaine Explosion).

Once again, it would be very interesting to investigate how much resistance scaling back the so-called war would generate from the police.

But in discussing all this, it is also worth remembering that the United States is a democracy, and even with all this resistance to reform, reform would happen if there was an overwhelming majority supporting it. Nevertheless at a time when Latin American governments are wishing to decriminalize drugs, there seems to be no appetite for reform in the United States (see, for example, this excellent article in the New York Review of Books). An interesting paper by Camilo Garcia shows how Prohibition in the first half of the 20th century was reversed when sufficiently many people started thinking that rather than reducing it, Prohibition was fueling crime.

And that’s another interesting issue to consider: the war on drugs is still not widely viewed as an utter failure. Why not?

Article originally appeared on Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (http://whynationsfail.com/).
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