Here is a staggering set of global statistics that the US media is not willing to discuss much. According to a 2008 Pew Report, "The United States incarcerates more people than any country in the world, including the far more populous nation of China. At the start of the new year, the American penal system held more than 2.3 million adults. China was second, with 1.5 million people behind bars, and Russia was a distant third with 890,000 inmates, according to the latest available figures. Beyond the sheer number of inmates, America also is the global leader in the rate at which it incarcerates its citizenry, outpacing nations like South Africa and Iran. In Germany, 93 people are in prison for every 100,000 adults and children. In the U.S, the rate is roughly eight times that, or 750per 100,000. Between 1987 and 2007, the national prison population has nearly tripled!
The International comparisons that the media seem to prefer are comparisons of math and science achievement; these educational statistics are meant to goad politicians to keep the pressure on teachers, their unions on testing and accountability. It would seem that our media editors may believe is no point informing the public about such dreary items as the tragic costs involved for the individuals and families who are imprisoned. Perhaps they consider that we are simply addicted to building more and more prisons (costing in the famed words of Jesse Jackson, more to send a young person to State Penn than Penn State) that there is no sense in starting a public debate. Perhaps they also take the view that there does not seem to be a workable alternative to simply locking them up, so why even bother raising the issue? Or they cynically may believe nothing will change as long as "locking them up" polls so well so that our poll driven politicians dare never to bring up the subject, so why should we?
But perhaps if the media started to examine some of the root causes of criminality that leads to offending and how other societies handle those root causes we could make progress in beginning to get a handle on the escalating problem. A recent report traces the problem of juvenile offending back to low levels of literacy. There is a strong correlation between failure to read by the 3rd grade and the kind of behavioral patterns that lead to prison sentencing. Lack of literacy seems to lead to acting out and anti-social behavior, because as the report suggests these children "realize that they are falling behind their peers, but are unable (or unwilling to) verbalize it. ..The low levels of literacy contributes to even lower levels of academic achievement; 48 percent of juvenile prisoners function academically below grade level, according to the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention."
It is no accident that the countries that do a better job in incarcerating fewer people and achieving better literacy outcomes are the Scandinavian nations. This is largely because these countries have better family policies when it comes to pre and post natal care and home support for disadvantaged families. They also support a more child centered curriculum for much longer in the child's development, starting formal education at a later date than the US, and emphasizing the importance of play. While it is doubtful that states will do much any time soon to change a cruel system where the only people who win are the growing private prison construction and services. It is about time though that leaders stepped up and told the US taxpayer, stuck with high recidivism rates and equally high bills, that there might be another way. All of this can begin if the media can start educating the public as to how we need to take a more global perspective with regard to this age old issue.