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People who are not anarchists often say that the existence of prisons deters people from violent crime. If you ask me, that implies that countries with higher incarceration rate tend to be lower in violent crime. But they do not seem to be: the USA is the country that has the higher incarceration rate than any other country in the world (no matter how you count), yet it is also the developed country that is the highest in violent crime. How do people who are not anarchists explain that?

If you say "It has to do with other factors.", what are those other factors? The biggest factor in violent crime is the GDP per capita (the higher the GDP per capita, the lower the violent crime), and the USA has a relatively high GDP per capita.

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    What's the relevance of anarchism to this question? I mean, it sounds like asking "How do non-vegetarians explain gravity?".
    – Nat
    Jul 3, 2023 at 2:10
  • Related: politics.stackexchange.com/q/272/130
    – gerrit
    Jul 3, 2023 at 7:05
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    @Nat Because the prison abolition movement is largely, perhaps mostly anarchist.
    – gerrit
    Jul 3, 2023 at 7:06
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    I would suggest to reword the question strongly. The bits about anarchists and the implicit or explicit facts you state (i.e. about GDP vs crime etc.) seem to confuse matters plenty. Concentrate on asking a single question, with as much side info you need to make clear what you mean.
    – AnoE
    Jul 3, 2023 at 14:05
  • A non-anarchist telling a wrong thing doesn't make anarchists good people. Jul 8, 2023 at 0:36

9 Answers 9

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Incarceration rates are one factor in a society's violent crime patterns. Given how few countries there are in the world, especially in the US's democratic/socioeconomic peer group, there's limited value in focussing on just one variable and saying: "Ha ha, that is it!" There are just too many variables and too few countries to compare with to get any kind of certainty.

Other factors include:

  • Gun ownership certainly has an effect, whether one sees it as deterrent or promoter of violent crime. The US is an outlier there.

  • Poverty. The nature of crime shifts as a society gets richer.

  • Society and culture. Japan has an enviably low rate of violent crime.

  • Immigration rates. Canada has a much higher legal one, with nowhere near the violence (but, before one reads too much into the legal bit, do illegal immigrants commit a lot of crimes? at the risk of deportation?) However, immigration factors can't always be pooh-poohed away as "just racism". Sweden has admitted lots of refugees lately and encountered some problems. Here's the govt's response, which tries to defuse the alarm, but acknowledges some grounds concerns. And, while this article does not address violent crime, murder rates have trended up in Sweden in the recent past.

    According to the most recent study, people born abroad are 2.5 times as likely to be registered as a crime suspect as people born in Sweden to two native-born parents. In relation to this latter group, therefore, the relative risk of being suspected of crime for people born abroad is 2.5. For those born in Sweden to two non-native parents, the relative risk is 3.2, which means people in this group are slightly more than three times as likely to be registered as a suspected offender as those born in Sweden to two native-born parents. However, the magnitude of this excess risk decreases when differences in age, gender and living conditions are taken into account, from 2.5 to 1.8 and 3.2 to 1.7 respectively.

To be clear, immigration-related problems are often also an indictment of the unwillingness of a host society to adapt to and integrate immigrants: if you let people come in, you have to find a way to make them feel welcome and allow them to succeed in their new home. Europe could learn a lot from the US, and Canada, in that regard.

  • Aim of incarceration. This can be retribution, keeping the rest of society safe, deterrence. And finally, rehabilitation and reinsertion. Norway is a country scoring high on the last 2, the US is definitely not, while retribution and deterrence seem a big motivation.

  • Police and justice system crime solving and condemnation rates. If no one gets caught... The US is fairly good there. But this is also why some places like Mexico or Brazil are so dangerous: a robber knows they likely won't get caught. Police trust rates: will the community support policing and report offenders? The US has a strong lack of trust, at least in certain communities.

  • Besides police investigation competency, it would also be rather foolish to think no effect would result from longer prison terms. Note this 2012 article from The Guardian, a trusty left-wing stalwart from the UK (but those stats mostly concern non-violent and for-profit crime however).

    The researchers concluded that prison was particularly effective in reducing property crime when targeted at serious and repeat offenders. They concluded that an increase of just one month in the average sentence length for burglaries – from 15.4 to 16.4 months – would reduce burglaries in the following year by 4,800, out of an annual total of 962,700.

    For fraud, an increase in sentences from 9.7 to 10.7 months would result in a reduction of 4,700 offences a year, out of 242,400. The report declares this to be "a substantial effect, especially when we consider that the length of sentence usually corresponds to approximately half the actual time spent in custody".

  • Historical, clustered, crime rates. Many parts of the US are quite safe, except for gun happy police (I had a gun pulled on me for not having my car lights on, so, yes, I feel I am entitled to that opinion). But certain parts are not, at all. Look at Chicago murder rates. If you grew up in an area where poverty and violence is the norm, you're more likely to be violent. Yes, as per another, fairly insinuating, answer, some Black communities are a part of that. But is that because they're Black? Or because they stayed poor as most of the country got richer? And have ready access to guns, unlike say minorities in French ghetto suburbs? Italy sees tremendous violence from its Mafia affiliated communities, yet, no one would suggest that is a factor of white Italian men in general.

    Disagreements over how to distribute the spoils led to the First 'Ndrangheta war (1974-77) killing 233 people.[29]

    The Second 'Ndrangheta war raged from 1985 to 1991. The bloody six-year war between the Condello-Imerti-Serraino-Rosmini clans and the De Stefano-Tegano-Libri-Latella clans led to more than 600 deaths.

  • Jail can also drive up criminality. France's Islamic terrorists have often started out as low level property criminals who get radicalized. "Learning the trade" in jail is a thing. This is a strong enough concern that even the UN warns of the risk. Though I will also quote a warning from that booklet:

    For religiously inspired extremism, it is very important not to confuse people who might have (re) discovered their faith with people who have developed radical views. Most people who convert or revert, e.g. to Islam, during imprisonment are doing so for peaceful individual motives or to bond with a group of other prisoners. However, prejudices around the linkage between religion and extremism remain very present and may hamper good risk assessment

  • In communities exposed to both violent crime and prejudiced policing, many children have grown up without their fathers who were in jail. Last, jails in the US are an industry and sometimes people who end up in them really should not have.

The general violent crime decline from the 1990s to the mid 2010s in the US has been theorized endlessly about:

  • hard criminals were in jail, kept away from the community.

but also

  • removal of lead in gas

  • availability of abortions, giving women the option to raise children when in better conditions

  • men coming of age in the 70s-80s having been raised by traumatized veterans of WW2.

These explanations are all over the map, and incarceration rates, despite going up under 3 strike laws, are not an obvious winner. Especially not as other countries also saw similar drops.

So, it's a complex thing. Being "soft on crime" is a sure way to lose votes in the US. Not always without reason, the whole "defund the police" thing was a joke, even as the country needs better trained and accountable cops.

But very high incarceration rates are generally not a good sign in a country. And regulatory capture by the prison-police industrial complex has not been good to California's budget for example:

California spends $900 million a year incarcerating parole violators and $465 million on supervising parolees, it said. The bulk of the supervision costs are ''for parole agents who spend much of their time filling out paperwork to send parolees back to prison.''

That is almost $1.4 billion spent on parole. Because two-thirds of new inmates are being returned for parole violations, ''this means that California's parole system is a billion-dollar failure,'' said Nancy Lyons, the deputy executive director of the commission.

A primary reason, experts say, is that the prison guards' union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, is the most powerful union in the state and contributes the largest amount of any political action committee to politicians in the state. The union also represents parole officers, and many of them began their careers as prison guards. Experts say the guards and parole officers have a financial incentive to keep the number of inmates high, helping preserve their jobs and ensure high salaries.

P.S. I am trying to avoid being dogmatic. El Salvador's president has introduced an extreme system to move "gang-affiliated criminals" into jail. For all the concerns about human rights, with El Salvador's homicide rate dropping nearly 60%, from its horrific previous rates, this is something to follow. Still, El Salvador is not the US and gang-affiliation tattoos would seem to provide identification advantages...

Some stats:

(El Salvador's recent drop does not appear in this 2023 data. It's now 18, not 52, which is why I mentioned the phenomenon)

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    Greek Polis would not have prisons at all due to not having incarceration as a means of punishment, but it was hardly anarchist.
    – alamar
    Jul 2, 2023 at 20:06
  • on the crime solving and condemnation rates: The US does much better than countries that are much poorer and have much higher crime rates. It does pretty lousy compared to other countries with similar gdp per capita (although almost all of these have lower rates of severe violent crime). Also the general decrease in violent crimes from the 1990s to the 2010s happened in most Western countries. So whatever the causes are, they are presumably not US specific.
    – quarague
    Jul 3, 2023 at 6:52
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    The paragraph of islamic terrorism could be put into context, as there is probably a fair number of people where religion is a way out of crime, without becoming a violent extremist. Islamic terrorists are probably not the most representative example here.
    – gerrit
    Jul 3, 2023 at 7:09
  • You're missing a big point. The US still has a lot of lead pipes. Lead exposure is a huge problem that isn't really talked about.
    – David S
    Jul 3, 2023 at 15:20
  • I think you should expand on your sentence about the prison industrial complex in the USA, it's far more pertinent than I think your one sentence grants Jul 3, 2023 at 17:38
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that implies that countries with higher incarceration rate tend to be lower in violent crime.

Well, there are multitude of factors and incarceration rate is just marker of how aggressively authorities try to deal with issue, not what was the underlying level.

Concerning your question - you have a very simple concerning what happens when country no longer has even thuggish security system able to imprison criminals. For example Americans managed to cause highest damage in Iraq after toppling Saddam Hussein not through any air strikes, but by disbanding whole security apparatus and thus lead to situation when criminal activity become much more lucrative, as risk of being caught was low. (though soon there was moderate risk of vigilantism)

"The biggest factor in violent crime is the GDP per capita"

Not really. Poorer regions like East Asia or Eastern Europe are quite safe, including those terribly unequal like People's Republic of China. Police states also tend to be nasty but relatively safe.

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    "including those terribly unequal like People's Republic of China. Police states also tend to be nasty but relatively safe." Crime statistics from police states and other authoritarian regimes cannot and should not be trusted. Jul 4, 2023 at 21:36
  • Fair @KarlKnechtel, but given that countries not considered Police States are also caught lying about crime, if only by obfuscation, I would take western stats with a pinch of pink Himalayan salt. Jul 4, 2023 at 22:06
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Ignoring the details of the particular issue at hand, you have a flaw in your reasoning that's contributing to your confusion.

People who are not anarchists often say that the existence of prisons deters people from violent crime. If you ask me, that implies that countries with higher incarceration rate tend to be lower in violent crime.

The premise is that - all else being equal - prisons have a deterrent effect on crime. That means if you track a certain population through two parallel universes (one with prisons and one without), the one with prisons would supposedly have less crime.

What you're doing is comparing two different countries, which violates the "all else being equal" part of the premise. Different countries have different people, different cultures, and different problems. What constitutes a crime differs between countries, as does what crimes result in prison sentences and how long those sentences are. You've changed a whole bunch of variables that all impact the outcome, so you can no longer draw any reliable conclusions about the effects of prisons alone. You need a much more controlled experiment where confounding factors are either eliminated or controlled for.

How do people who are not anarchists explain that?

By saying "without prisons, the rates of violent crime in the US would be even higher."

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    I'd also note that prosecution isn't equally robust in every location of the US. Some states have a firm "three strikes and you're out law", others let scofflaws deal drugs in the open and tolerate tent camps in the middle of the city. So prisons aren't being utilized effectively everywhere. Jul 3, 2023 at 16:43
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    More than failing on "all else being equal", the question misses that prison is not independent of crime rate - when the crime rate goes up, you would expect the prison population to increase because, well, where do you put the criminals? You might as well ask "if medicine makes you healthier, how come so many sick people go to the hospital all the time"?
    – user22917
    Jul 4, 2023 at 18:28
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Criminal justice systems do not work in just one way, not all crime stems from the same cause, and crime is not defined or detected in the same way across space and time, so it is very difficult to be comprehensive on the matter.

But the main variable thought to account for the relatively high US violent crime rate, is the extent to which it is (and always has been) a society characterised by deep inequalities and an absence of solidarity between its citizens.

The high incarceration rate is simply symptomatic both of the levels of violent crime, and of a determination of the US state not to solve the fundamental absence of civil solidarity but only to cope with its symptoms.

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    -1 because there isn't a perfect correlation between inequality and crime, as suggested by your answer. Jul 3, 2023 at 14:57
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    @JonathanReez, I'd be quite interesting to know which societies are characterised by high inequality and low solidarity, and yet have low crime.
    – Steve
    Jul 3, 2023 at 15:21
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    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_income_equality - Chile for example has a higher inequality rate but a lower crime rate than the US. Jul 3, 2023 at 16:04
  • @JonathanReez, ah I need to put my glasses on clearly. But if solidarity is impossible to measure in your view, why seize on only the remaining aspect as if solidarity wasn't mentioned? You've rewritten me from saying that inequality and solidarity are main variables, to saying there is a perfect correlation with inequality alone.
    – Steve
    Jul 3, 2023 at 17:07
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    Sure but then you still get a -1 because you've given a non-answer. Blaming crime rates on "solidarity" seems very strange. People commit crimes for many reasons but I'm not sure what solidarity has to do with it or how to prove or disprove that's the case. Jul 3, 2023 at 17:14
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This is an incredibly complicated issue with hundreds, if not thousands, of factors. Simplifying this to only one number misses most of the points.

Here is a very simplified, not even remotely complete list of other factors:

The number of people in prison is itself pretty useless

For example, it doesn't even include why someone is in prison.

  • Are they in prison for a crime that actually deserves a long prison sentence?
  • Are they in prison because they couldn't afford a defence attorney that actually had more than a 7 minutes per case (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=USkEzLuzmZ4)?
  • Are they in prison because the police massively screwed up?
  • Are they in prison because the judicial system is overburdened?
  • Are they in prison because police gets paid to get more people in prison?

The GDP per capita is a pretty useless number

  • GDP per capita only counts the average amount of money earned, it does not show the amount of money the average person earns. That's median income.
  • For example, a GDP per capita of $100 000 can mean, 100 people each earn $100 000. Or it could mean one person earns $9 990 000 and 99 people earn $101 each.
  • Income inequality is really high in the USA. It slots in nicely in between Ivory Coast and Bulgaria, and it has a much higher inequality than e.g. affluent nations like Ethiopia, Thailand or Niger. Income inequality is a much higher driver of crime than GDP per capita.

A badly run criminal/prison system can cause much more harm than it fixes

But that doesn't mean that every criminal/prison system causes more harm than it fixes. A bad doctor can also cause more harm than they fix, but that doesn't mean that medicine is bad.

  • Criminal systems can have multiple goals, mainly retribution, deterrence and rehabilitation.
  • The US criminal system leans heavily on the retribution/deterrence side of things. This means, once you are in the system, you won't get out. Having a criminal record often precludes you from cheap government housing, education or employment. This means, once you got done for doing a crime, you might not have any other possible sources of income than doing more crime. Which is pretty dumb if you think about it.
  • Many European criminal systems lean more towards rehabilitation. For example, if you go to prison in Austria, you will be able to do job trainings and even university degrees for free while you are in there. If you leave prison with a degree, chances are pretty high that you have better ways of earning money than selling drugs.

But these are just a few points, there are literally hundreds more

E.g.:

  • Lead exposure (low-level lead poisoning leads to decreased intelligence, higher aggressiveness and higher levels of (violent) crimes)
  • Culture (if you learn from an early age that it is ok to shoot people who walk onto your property, you might have less restraint to do so)
  • Gun culture (it's not only important how many people own guns, but also how people think about guns and gun violence)
  • Guns per Capita is a dumb measurement, better is Capitas with guns. The Guns per Capita number is severely skewed by few individuals hoarding guns. But it's more important how many people have guns, than whether a single individual has thousands of guns. Everyone has a maximum of two hands, so anything above 2 guns per person doesn't matter.
  • Welfare systems (if you have no perspectives and are literally homeless and starving, prison is not a threat but a place where you get free food and a bed. Having a welfare system that gives even the poorest of the poor something to lose makes prisons much more effective.)
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  • For the US, a key issue would also be the nature of the mental health system.
    – o.m.
    Jul 5, 2023 at 4:09
  • Absolutely. The medical system in the US is generally a serious harm to the public.
    – Dakkaron
    Jul 5, 2023 at 8:43
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    Income inequality is a much higher driver of crime than GDP per capita => incorrect, absolute poverty is what's driving crime and the US is actually doing really well in terms of absolute poverty. The inequality angle is fake news pushed by people of certain political leaning. Jul 5, 2023 at 15:08
  • @JonathanReez GDP per capita says basically nothing about the income of the average citizen. If you have a group of 10 homeless people, their income doesn't increase if you just group them together with Jeff Bezos, even though the average income of 10 homeless people + Jeff Bezos is pretty high.
    – Dakkaron
    Jul 6, 2023 at 17:49
  • @Dakkaron I never said GDP per capita is what matters. What really matters is the quality of life for the bottom 10% of the nation - and it doesn't matter if they're 5x or 50x less rich than the top 10%. Jul 6, 2023 at 18:03
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I like how people tried to answer this question. Isn't the answer simple? You're statistics could be wrong. In order to gauge if its right: you would have to take USA criminal system out for a week and see if criminal rates go up.

Comparing USA to country ABC, who might have lower cops/'looser' criteria for catching said criminals will make your "statistics" wrong.

Country XYZ, or USA, might have higher incarceration rate and higher violent crime because they're literally looking for criminals.

simple: correlation does not mean causation.

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Other answers tackle some aspects more specific to prisons and the US crime situation, but there’s a big fallacy in your premises: “Having some X is good” doesn’t imply “having more X is always better”. I think we’d all agree that eating some food is healthy (compared to none), but eating too much is unhealthy.

In particular, I agree that most people believe “having some prisons deters crime (compared to no prisons)”, and plenty of philosophers, sociologists, etc. have argued this point. But I don’t think so many people believe “having more prisons will always deter crime better”, and most arguments for prisons don’t claim or imply this. So even without looking at the other factors, there is no contradiction between the belief “existence of prisons deters crime” and the US’s many-prisons, high-crime statistics. You ask “How do non-anarchists explain this?” — but there is no contradiction to explain!

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This is just an illustration of a fact: correct politic anwers to societal questions are neither evident not simple. Any attempt to provide an immediate solution is the recipe for a failure: prisons are indeed required to protect the society, but just relying on prisons to solve the violent crimes problems is IMHO stupid. Not only I say that, but also the facts that you report.

What matters is as usual to find the actual causes and reasons, and try to act on those causes. The problem is that politicians have to persuade other people to vote for them and it is easier to make a speech explaining that criminals will be prosecuted and thrown in jail, than to make a philosophical speech explaining why young ones become criminal, and what could be done to limit the risk. Furthermore, it may not be what the electors of a specific candidate want to hear...

It is one of the original sins of democracy. Unfortunately any other political system that has been tried turned out to be worse ;-) (ref.)

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Guns!

the USA's constitutional right to bear arms creates a situation where each party to a confrontation is both likely to be carrying a firearm, and likely to fear that the other party is also carrying a firearm. And it's possible to kill or seriously wound someone with a firearm in a small fraction of a second, quite possibly "accidentally", courtesy of a twitchy trigger finger and extreme fear.

This, especially with concealed short-barrelled weapons.

If somebody goes for a knife, they have time to pull their lethal impulse if the other party doesn't do the same. You cannot "accidentally" stab somebody. Ditto just about any other weapon. But with guns, you can kill with a twitch.

I'm answering the question posed from my UK perspective. Take it or leave it. I do know that the right to bear arms is constitutionally protected, and so it would be hard to change it. Also that many citizens of the USA would oppose that change. These facts don't alter the effects of widespread possession of handguns.

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  • And how do you know guns do not lower the crime, rather than increase it? Maybe guns are used more commonly to avert a crime than to commit it. Have you looked into the Gary Kleck's study? Jul 5, 2023 at 16:34
  • No. The UK perspective is no legal handguns, few and strictly licensed other guns, unarmed police (except armed response units, called up only when a gun crime occurs), almost zero gun crime and a much lower overall rate of violent crime. What violent crime there is, is normally knife crime.
    – nigel222
    Jul 5, 2023 at 17:07
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    Also the fact that while burglaries between the UK and U.S. occur at the same rates per capita, 80% of Burglaries in the U.K. are "Hot Burglaries" where the criminal enters the building while a lawful occupant is inside, while in the United States this type of burglary occurs in only 20% of all cases. The reason for this, according to surveys of convicted felons is that the U.S.'s stronger self-defense protections within private property constitutes a risk to their lives that is too great to the criminal to make the reward worth it.
    – hszmv
    Jul 5, 2023 at 17:09
  • The behavior of the Wet Bandits in the first Home Alone film and how they staked out Kevin's house to figure out if it was truly occupied is actual behavior of U.S. criminals. Keep in mind a Hot Burglary is inherintly more dangerous to the victim than a cold one because of the higher likely hood to encountering the criminal and the advantage that the criminal has in pulling the weapon first. In a setting where both combatants are within 20 feet of each other (such as in this situation), a knife is far more lethal statistically than a gun.
    – hszmv
    Jul 5, 2023 at 17:14
  • @hszmv Personally I'll trade a reduced chance of ending up wounded or dead against a higher chance of getting my stuff stolen. YMMV. I have insurance. (In passing I actually once interrupted a burglar in my flat. I was of course unarmed, and emerged from the encounter unharmed. He just ran away after recovering from his shock at seeing me. If he'd had a gun, who can say. )
    – nigel222
    Jul 5, 2023 at 17:19

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