The current rate of total incarceration in the United States is by a significant degree the highest of any economically-developed Western nation state – around 1% of the adult population is in detention. The prison population of around 2.3 million individuals exceeds the population of some 15 American States, and prompts an Economist lead article to state, justifiably, that ‘No other rich country is nearly as punitive as the Land of the Free’. While the rate at which America incarcerates its citizens has more than quadrupled since 1970, there is little evidence that this approach is having the intended effect on crime rates, which are higher now than in 1970.
For young black men, this figure rises to an astonishing 1 in 9 (Economist, 2010). Many of these individuals were given prison sentences or relatively minor drug offences, and so the unnecessary and apparently ineffective harshness of much American legislation has its part to play, as will be detailed below.
The proportion of prison inmates from different racial groups demonstrates the blatantly racist bias in the justice system. 38% of those incarcerated in the United States are African-Americans, but the latter make up only 13% of the total population, while 19% of those in prison are Latinos, but the latter account for only 15% of the total population. This has led to the dangerous situation where a black male born in 2001 has a 32% chance of incarceration at some point, a Hispanic male has a 17% chance of being imprisoned, while a while male has only a 6% chance of incarceration (The Sentencing Project, 2008, p.2). Furthermore, while the above figures represent national averages, Human Rights Watch found that in seven States, blacks are incarcerated at more than thirteen times the rate of whites. The United States has found itself in a situation where, in every State, the proportion of blacks in prison is greater than that of whites, and in Minnesota and Iowa it is 12 times greater (Human