Debate: Does America Have a Mass Incarceration Problem? | Opinion

America, now two months removed from the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, is still entertaining numerous national discussions pertaining to the intersection of justice, public safety and the rule of law. While conversations about policing and law enforcement dominate national headlines, an ancillary debate lurks just beneath the surface: Does America incarcerate too many people? Advocates of large-scale reform often cite America's disproportionately high incarceration rates; but skeptics, in reply, often cite America's disproportionately high rates of crippling violence.

This week, Marc Levin, chief of policy and innovation for Right on Crime, an initiative of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, debates Rafael A. Mangual, fellow and deputy director of legal policy at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research and a contributing editor of City Journal. We hope you enjoy this substantive, information-packed, engaging exchange.

Josh Hammer, Newsweek opinion editor, is also a syndicated columnist and of counsel at First Liberty Institute.

Public Safety Requires Thinking Outside the Cell

The U.S. is exceptional in many positive ways, from its Founding ideals to the dynamism of its free market economy and technological innovations. It is also distinguished by having less than 5 percent of the world's population, but 20 percent of those behind bars.

The U.S. has 8.5 times the incarceration rate of Germany. Of course, there are many differences between nations, and some might suggest other developed countries like Germany should incarcerate more people, but the U.S. is clearly an outlier. Moreover, the exponential gap in incarceration rates cannot be explained solely by the variation in crime rates, as the crime index in the U.S. is only 36 percent higher than Germany. While my Newsweek Debate opponent, Mr. Mangual, is correct that the U.S. has far more homicides than Germany, homicides are relatively rare and amount to only a small slice of violent crime and prison admissions. The U.S. violent crime rate in 2018 was 380.6 per 100,000 people, which is only about twice as much as Germanys' rate of 181.1 in the same year.

Mass Decarceration Is Not the Answer

Over the last few months, America's criminal justice debate has been focused on policing. But incarceration remains a divisive issue. The key question here is whether the U.S. has a "mass incarceration" problem; if it does, then mass decarceration is the obvious solution. While there is certainly a subset of the American prison population whose incarceration does not serve a legitimate penological end, that subset is not large enough to sharply cut prison roles by, say, 50 percent—a goal the presumptive Democratic Party presumptive nominee, Joe Biden, has explicitly committed to pursuing. Pursuing that sharp a reduction in incarceration would necessarily require releasing, or refusing to incarcerate, chronic, often violent, offenders who pose a significant risk to the public's safety—particularly in communities already struggling with elevated crime levels, economic blight and other social problems.

The question of whether the U.S. over-incarcerates on a "mass" level is one many attempt to answer via international comparisons. Presenting America's incarceration rate alongside that of another Western European democracy can, at first glance, seem shocking; but such arguments reflect an oversimplification that masks major differences that go a long way toward explaining the delta between America's prison population, and, say, Germany's (to take Mr. Levin's example).

Old prison cell at Alcatraz
Old prison cell at Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary Robert Alexander/Getty Images