18 November 2013

The U.S. and Sweden—a tale of two incarceration rates

Having just watched the documentary The House I Live In about the U.S. drug war, or more precisely about the abject failure of the U.S. drug war, I was intrigued with an article I came across in The Guardian about Sweden's dwindling incarceration rate. The number of prison admissions has dropped so rapidly in the past two years, Sweden is closing four prisons and a remand centre.

The decline is attributed to a number of factors, including a strong focus on rehabilitation, more lenient sentences for drug offences and greater use of probation. Of course, Sweden also has a very low murder rate at 1.0 per year per 100,000 population, compared to the U.S. at 4.7 and Canada at 1.6.

Sweden's incarceration rate is 67 inmates per 100,000 population, ranking 180th in the world. Number one, of course, is the United States at 716, ten times as high. (Canada's rate is 114, ranking 133rd.)

The high U.S. prison population is due to more and longer prison sentences through such policies as mandatory minimum sentences, three-strike laws, and reduced use of parole and early release. But the biggest reason, as The House I Live In documents, is the war on drugs. A lost war. Americans have the world's highest use of cocaine (14 times that of Sweden) and drugs are cheaper, purer and more readily available today than ever. It seems that very many of those imprisoned men and women are rotting away for nothing, their families broken, their communities undermined, their country wasting valuable resources.

We are neither Sweden nor the U.S., we cannot simply imitate either, but if there is a lesson to be learned from these two stories, it is, as is so often the case, that we should tilt heavily toward Sweden.

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