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By Thomas F. O'Neill

    My students in my cultural diversity classes here in Suzhou, China enjoy discussing the differences between the U.S. criminal justice system and China’s penal system. I tell my students that the United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population but it has close to a quarter of the world’s prisoners.
    Americans can get prison sentences for such crimes as writing bad checks or using drugs. In most industrialized nations offenses such as these warrant stiff fines and community work assignments. In China convicted offenders pay restitution to the victims through work assignments that are assigned to them through the courts.
    In the U.S. prisoners are sentenced to much longer prison terms than in most other countries. There are 2.3 million people behind bars in the U.S. the highest percentage of inmates than in any other industrialized nation.
    China with four times the number of people than the U.S. and has 1.6 million in its penal system. Statistics show that for every 100,000 people in America 751 of them are incarcerated. One out of every hundred adults is currently serving time in prison in the U.S.
    The only other major industrialized nation that even comes close is Russia, with 627 prisoners for every 100,000 people. The others have much lower rates. England's rate is 151; Germany's is 88; and Japan's is 63.
    Criminologists and legal experts here in China and in the U.S. point to a tangle of factors to explain America's extraordinary incarceration rate. Major factors would be higher levels of violent crime in our country and harsher sentencing laws.
    Our history of racial turmoil and racial injustice that is not found in most industrialized nations is just one of the contributing factors to the high inmate population in our country.
    Most politicians in the U.S. have a special fervor in combating illegal drugs which also leads to longer sentences. Many in the U.S. also lack employment skills and social safety nets which can lead them to commit crimes out of desperation.
    American democracy is certainly a major factor in the high crime rate in the U.S. The availability of guns in our country is leading to more violent crimes as well. There are more guns in America than people and our modern era of gun possession has become an anomaly. The nations where gun possession is illegal like here in China have much lower rates of violent crimes.
    Politicians and Judges in the U.S. also run on ‘Get tough on Crime’ platforms and many of them are elected on populist demands for tough justice. The gap between American justice and that of the rest of the world is however enormous and growing.
    From 1925 to 1975, the rate of incarceration in the U.S. remained stable, around 110 people in prison per 100,000 people. It shot up with the movement to get tough on crime in the late 1970s. The availability of guns is directly related to the fact that America has four times the murder rate than all the western European nations combined.
    Those who commit nonviolent crimes in the rest of the world are less likely to receive prison time and certainly less likely to receive long sentences. The United States is, for instance, the only advanced country that incarcerates people for minor property crimes.
    Our Nations' war on drugs seems to be a losing battle as well. I say this because in 1980, there were about 40,000 people in American jails and prisons for drug crimes. These days, there are almost 500,000 with long incarceration stays and most crimes in the U.S. are drug related. Many criminologists and sociologists believe it is time to reexamine our war strategy on illegal drugs.
    Many American prosecutors, though, say that locking up people involved in the drug trade is imperative, as it helps thwart demand for illegal drugs and drives down other kinds of crime. For instance, many prosecutors have fought hard to prevent the early release of people in prison on crack cocaine offenses. Many of those addicts are among the most serious and violent offenders due to the staunch realities of addiction.
    It is the length of sentences that truly distinguishes America from the other industrialized nations. The number of sentences imposed would not place the United States at the top of the incarceration lists. If lists were compiled based on annual admissions to prison per capita, several European countries would outpace the United States. But American prison stays are much longer, so the total incarceration rate is higher. Burglars in the United States serve an average of 16 months in prison compared with 5 months in Canada and 7 months in England.
    Blacks are also much more likely to be imprisoned than other groups in the United States. Minorities in Canada, Britain and Australia are also disproportionately represented in those nation's prisons, and the ratios are similar to or larger than those in the United States.
    The American character — self-reliant, independent, judgmental — also plays a role in our high prison population. American’s are known for being ruggedly individualistic that characteristic of our Americana has not only shown up in popular literature and films but in our criminal justice system as well.
    Several specialists here in China and in the U.S. pointed to a surprising explanation for the high incarceration rate in the United States: Democracy.
    Most state court judges and prosecutors in the U.S. are elected and are therefore sensitive to a public that is, according to opinion polls, generally in favor of tough crime policies. In the rest of the world, though, criminal justice professionals tend to be civil servants who are insulated from popular demands for tough sentencing.
    Democracy is interwoven into our political structure and we are a politicized nation. Political opinion whether it is sound or hyped does influence our Judges, prosecutors, and politicians. They pander to the political demand for harsher sentences for criminals. This however is resulting in prison overcrowding and a higher recidivism rate among inmates. Most eventually do get released back into society lacking the proper skills to become productive citizens.
    My student's interest in American politics and our criminal justice system generates lively discussions in my classes. One of my students who is heading off to America next semester to study International Affairs told me she is concerned about her personal safety when she arrives in the U.S.
    I said to her “if you ever get the chance to visit Central Park in New York City and if you decide to sit down on a park bench next to a little old lady. Nine times out of ten that little old lady will not be packing a Magnum 44 pistol in her purse.” I was referencing a story that was amusingly aired on a popular Chinese television program. The show's segment was about gun possession in America. I reassured my students by saying, “America is not as bad as the Chinese media makes it out to be and that is certainly a good thing.”
    America’s image seems to be diminishing in the world and there is no easy answer to solving the issues plaguing our country. But that being said the number of exchange students entering America from China has increased by 28 percent in 2011. America will always be the land of opportunities and dreams for a better future no matter what the crime statics may be.

    Always with love from Suzhou, China
    Thomas F O’Neill

    U.S. voice mail: (800) 272-6464
    China Cell: 011-86-15114565945
    Skype: thomas_f_oneill
    Other articles, short stories, and commentaries by Thomas F. O'Neill can be found on his award winning blog, Link:

    Click on author's byline for bio and list of other works published by Pencil Stubs Online.


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