When it comes to imprisoning their citizens, dictators have nothing on NC

Over at the UNC School of Government’s excellent new North Carolina Criminal Law blog, they’ve noted that the Tar Heel state actually comes across rather well in the important new report on U.S. incarceration rates from the Pew Center on the States:

The numbers in North Carolina are still large: about 1 in every 110 adults in North Carolina is in prison, and 1 in 58 is on probation. But we rank 29th in incarceration rate, 30th in probation rate, and 31st in overall correctional control rate, all below average. Furthermore, our correctional control growth rate over the past 20 years has been slower than the national average, dramatically so with respect to incarceration.

That’s good news, to be sure, but how good is it really? For some quick and dirty answers, it’s actually helpful to turn to the Pew Center’s report from last year on U.S. incarceration rates. With 620 people incarcerated per 100,000 residents, the 2008 report found, North Carolina has the lowest incarceration rate in the South. Louisiana had the highest rate nationally at 1,138 per 100,000, followed by Georgia (1,021) and Texas (976). The states with the lowest rates nationally were Maine (273 per 100,000 residents), Minnesota (300) and Rhode Island (313). So North Carolina finds itself more or less in the middle of the pack on its rate of incarceration when compared with other U.S. states. What’s the big deal?

Before they shrug their shoulders at the Pew Reports, state lawmakers ought to take a look at other countries’ incarceration rates (way down on page 35 of the 2008 report). Only one nation, Russia, locks more of its citizens up than North Carolina. But at a rate of 628 per 100,000, the Russians only have a tiny lead over the Tar Heels.

Meanwhile, and predictably, European social democracies are putting North Carolina and every other state in the U.S. to shame: Denmark and Italy only incarcerate 67 of their citizens per 100,000, Sweden 79, France 85, and Germany 93. The fun-loving folks in the Netherlands incarcerate a mere 128 per 100,000 and the English are only marginally higher with 148.

Ah, yes, but of course those are all wimpy, sclerotic welfare states! They’re bound to be soft on crime… Not so fast: Take a look at the latest World Prison Population List released by the International Centre for Prison Studies at King’s College London this past January. North Carolina has a far higher incarceration rate than nations run by some of the West’s most hated dictators. As of 2007, Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe only incarcerated 136 citizens per 100,000; Muammar al-Gaddafi in Libya was pulling a feeble 209; and Burma’s military junta can barely keep it together with rate of 126.

How about Iran, ol’ Axis of Evil herself? Nope. The freedom-hating Ayatollahs only incarcerate at a rate of 222 per 100,000. For all the (rather oxymoronic) squealing about how Hugo Chavez is a democratically elected dictator, he’s not doing such a good job playing the part: Venezuela only locked up 79 per 100,000 last year. Even the Castro brothers fall well behind North Carolina by imprisoning 531 per 100,000 — giving Cuba a slightly lower incarceration rate than New Jersey.

Maybe there’s hope for North Carolina, though. The International Centre for Prison Studies couldn’t get reliable data on incarceration rates in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Who knows? It could be that Kim Jong-il is running a bigger prison state than Bev Perdue.


  1. Dewey

    March 4, 2009 at 9:33 am

    Do we have more inmates than must countries because we have more people committing violent crime? If NC had as many prison beds as other Southern states per 100,000 would Eve Carson be alive today? And is it true that NC spends twice as much to house inmates as SC?

  2. Chris

    March 4, 2009 at 11:02 am

    Prison is the social safety net in America. We’d rather lock’em up than provide decent-paying jobs, health care, and education during the formative years.

  3. IBXer

    March 4, 2009 at 3:44 pm

    Ever stop to think that some of those countries have lower incarceration rates because people the governments deem undesirable simply vanish from their homes in the middle of the night?

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