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 rolls 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).
The most obvious of those major differences is the rate of serious (as opposed to general) crime—the sort that is most likely to be met with a long term of imprisonment. In 2018, Germany, with a population of approximately 83,200,000, saw 2,471 homicides (including both murder and manslaughter). Let's compare that with just a handful of high-crime slices of the U.S. Four contiguous community areas in Chicago (Humbolt Park, East Garfield Park, West Garfield Park and Austin) saw 121 homicides in 2018, with a combined population of about 189,846. Two police districts in Baltimore (western and southwestern) saw 100 homicides that year, with a combined population estimated at 103,052. Detroit's eighth and ninth precincts (combined estimated population of 160,354) saw 81 homicides in 2018. And three St. Louis neighborhoods (The Greater Ville, Wells-Goodfellow and Baden) saw 34 homicides between them in 2018. Their combined population was approximately 19,352. In other words, just a few small slices of just four American cities saw, in 2018, 13.6 percent of the homicides seen in the whole of Germany despite housing just 472,604 people (equivalent to about 0.5 percent of Germany's population).
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