The United States claims to be the land of the free. But like many television ads, the reality is very different from the image. The US contains only 5% of the world’s population but over 25% of its prisoners, and America’s incarceration rate of over 730 per 100,000 is the highest on earth. (Jamaica’s 135 per 100,000 is fairly normal.) In 1980 there were 500,000 inmates in the US. There are now over 2 million, two thirds of whom have been convicted for non-violent crimes, mainly drug offences. Average prison sentences have also increased, partly as a result of “three strikes and you are out” legislation mandating long fixed jail terms for repeat offenders. All this is the result of laws making it easier to arrest and convict suspects.


The rate of imprisonment for American blacks is an incredible 2,500 per 100,000, by far the highest for any group in the world. One third of African-American men aged 20-29 are in prison, on probation or on parole. Many blacks have lost the right to vote because of their criminal convictions. In the states with the most restrictive voting laws, 40% of black men could soon be permanently disenfranchised. The United States is also the only developed country to retain the death penalty - only China, Congo and Iran executed more persons in 1998. And blacks are far more likely to be sentenced to death than whites.


In any other country such appalling statistics would be deemed evidence of ‘a gross abuse of human rights’. Bodies like Amnesty International would condemn Jamaica for ‘inhumanity’ if we executed and jailed people at the same rate as the US.


Yet Americans on the whole are hardly complaining. For while the USA’s incarceration rate has reached record levels, its crime rate has fallen for 8 consecutive years to levels not seen since the 1960s. As the New York Times recently reported, this has transformed everyday life


“With the historic drop in violent crime beginning to take hold in even the most blighted urban areas, cities across the country are being transformed, as neighborhoods that had become frightening wastelands are showing glimmers of renaissance. From Boston to New Orleans and Los Angeles to Miami, neighborhoods where drug gangs controlled the streets, commandeered empty houses and terrorized residents are slowly beginning to seem safer and more livable… New homes are being built, stores are opening, subway and bus lines are adding service, and banks and shopping strips are breaking ground. There is less graffiti and fewer abandoned cars and vacant lots. And, for the first time in years, people are sitting on their front porches and parents feel safe letting their children walk to school… surveys in Chicago have found that in the sections of the city where crime has declined sharply, primarily African-American neighborhoods on the South and West Sides, there have been ‘extremely large increases in the quality of life’”.


Of course jailing more people is not the only reason crime has fallen. An unprecedented economic boom has also helped, not least by generating taxes to pay for all those new prisons. But the cold hard facts show that between 1989 and 1999 the US prison population doubled, while its homicide rate fell by a half. This could not be mere coincidence. (During the same period Jamaica’s imprisonment rate actually dropped, and our murder rate has almost doubled.)


Places like Britain, Canada, Australia and Western Europe have both low crime and incarceration rates. But these all have highly educated populaces and stable family structures. Jamaica has a serious male illiteracy problem and an 85% out of wedlock birthrate, realities which are not going to change overnight. Education might be the proper long run remedy for such problems, but that is necessarily a matter of generations. Those educated in the British liberal tradition might find it distasteful, but the question must be asked - is America’s ‘lock them away and kill a few for example’ policy the only real short term solution to our crime problem?


A lot of Jamaicans would say yes. After all, only a small proportion of men are responsible for the vast majority of our crimes. Police often complain that they know who these men are, but witnesses are afraid to testify in court and so it is impossible to convict them. So known rapists, robbers and murderers insolently walk the streets, free to pillage and kill almost at will.


So, argue many, let us stop listening to the human right wimps and make it easier for the police to catch criminals and our courts to convict them. Look how murder has skyrocketed since the Suppressions of Crimes Act was abolished! We should be glad when police shoot a known murderer, not highlight demonstrations of his criminal cronies. Sure a few innocent people might suffer. But you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. Putting away even a thousand or so known criminals would drastically cut Jamaica’s crime rate almost overnight. And if this happened you would hear a lot less talk about police brutality! A lot of people complained when New York started ‘zero tolerance’ policing. But Mayor Guilliani’s support among minorities went up dramatically when they saw crime fall.


I put this argument to the pleasant lady from STATIN who supplied me with the Jamaican prison figures. And we both agreed that it went against the grain of our liberal democratic instincts. If the rights of a few are knowingly abused by the state, what is there to stop the same thing happening to the many or even to us? Then there is the practical aspect – how would we pay for the extra prisons we would need?


But, I asked her, which of these situations would you prefer : a) our present reality of a relatively low incarceration rate and one of the highest homicide levels in the world. Or b) Jailing a lot more people and seeing our murder rate halve. She thought long and hard. Putting more people in jail was not a nice thing to contemplate. It might increase prison brutality. And what about the innocent people who got caught in the system? And would it really work?


But I pointed out, finding my distasteful argument disturbingly convincing, the hard core approach has already worked in the US. So why it shouldn’t it work here? And those Americans not in jail seem to be too busy enjoying their new crime free environment to worry about any innocents behind bars. Wouldn’t it be nice if we Jamaicans could walk our streets without fear again and not live behind burglar bars? “Boy”, she finally exclaimed “maybe we have to try it!”

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