Prison Fact of the Day

Most of this NYTimes article on incarceration rates is old news to everyone here I'm sure. But this part was new to me at least:

It is the length of sentences that truly distinguishes American prison policy. Indeed, the mere number of sentences imposed here would not place the United States at the top of the incarceration lists. If lists were compiled based on annual admissions to prison per capita, several European countries would outpace the United States. But American prison stays are much longer, so the total incarceration rate is higher.

I had always assumed that we convicted and sentenced more individuals, but apparently not, it's "just" that our sentences are longer.

The one example they give of an average sentence is this:

Burglars in the United States serve an average of 16 months in prison, according to Mr. Mauer, compared with 5 months in Canada and 7 months in England.

In the last twelve months, I've twice been the victim of property crime (a burglary and an attempted car theft), so I'm pretty unsympathetic to the complaints of thieves. And I'd like to see more sentencing statistics, which are pretty hard to find across states. But I thought I'd throw the question out there: With the obvious, and gigantic, exception of drug offenses, are longer sentences for "ordinary" and indisputable criminals like burglars and arsonists a black mark on the American justice system?

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Depends

To answer that question, I'd have to know what effects prison sentences have on crime rates. I suspect that 16 months is closer to optimal than 5 to 7, but maybe I'm wrong. Regardless of how the cost-benefit analysis comes out, I certainly wouldn't say that it's a moral failing of the US justice system. As far as I'm concerned, the rights of those who willfully violate the rights of others begin and end with a fair trial.

Do we know that prison actually works?

Other than keeping predators segregated from the rest of society, it isn't clear to me that prison really helps at all?

People inside prison experience a very unpleasant environment that rewards ruthlessness and predatory behavior and punishes more civic behavior. Not to mention the networking opportunities with other criminals.

My expectation is that a longer prison sentence correlates with an increase in the likelihood of reoffense and the severity of future crimes.