Locking Up the “American Temperament”
This bit of tsk-tsking is floating among newspapers:
… the United States leads the world in producing prisoners, a reflection of a relatively recent and now entirely distinctive American approach to crime and punishment. Americans are locked up for crimes — from writing bad checks to using drugs — that would rarely produce prison sentences in other countries. And in particular they are kept incarcerated far longer than prisoners in other nations.
Criminologists and legal scholars in other industrialized nations say they are mystified and appalled by the number and length of American prison sentences. …
Criminologists and legal experts here and abroad point to a tangle of factors to explain America’s extraordinary incarceration rate: higher levels of violent crime, harsher sentencing laws, a legacy of racial turmoil, a special fervor in combating illegal drugs, the American temperament, and the lack of a social safety net. Even democracy plays a role, as judges — many of whom are elected, another American anomaly — yield to populist demands for tough justice.
Although I’m not sure what the author means by “the American temperament,” I was curious enough about context that I thought to poke around on NationMaster.com (of whose listings I’m generally skeptical for more than general impressions), with the following findings:
- The U.S.A. doesn’t make the top 48 list for number of police per capita.
- Nor does it make the top 56 for people convicted of crimes per capita.
- But it’s number 8 for total crimes committed per capita.
- We’re more likely than residents of any other nation to think that folks with criminal records make bad neighbors.
- Although Japan edges us out when it comes to not wanting druggies next door.
- At the end of it all, we feel safe:
So I guess “the American temperament” blends a feeling of safety in our communities with a dislike of criminals and a preference for low-profile law enforcement. Tsk.