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The Challenge of Crime: Rethinking Our Response
The Challenge of Crime: Rethinking Our Response
Henry S. Ruth
Harvard University Press, 2003
384 pp., $35.00

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Harsh Justice: Criminal Punishment and the Widening Divide Between America and Europe
Harsh Justice: Criminal Punishment and the Widening Divide Between America and Europe
James Q. Whitman
Oxford University Press, 2003
336 pp., $39.95

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by Nathan Bierma


Doing Time

Do correctional facilities correct anything?

Last year, the United States marked an inauspicious milestone. The Department of Justice announced that as of June 2002, for the first time ever, two million of its citizens were behind bars. One of every 142 Americans was in prison or jail, one of the highest rates in the world.1 One in 37 is or has been incarcerated, including one in three African American males.2

The two-million mark could have been hailed as an achievement. President Gerald Ford all but set the goal of the past three decades of crime fighting in a 1975 address to Yale Law School. Since violent crime was caused by a "relatively few persistent criminals," the solution was simply to "get them off the streets," to "separate the law-breakers from the law-abiding society."3 Ford was complaining specifically about plea-bargain-happy prosecutors at a time when the nation's inmate population was less than half a million. But then and since, the call to "get tough on crime" has dominated political rhetoric. Now that we have incarcerated two million offenders, we should be feeling much more secure.

Yet even among many who believe that tougher enforcement and sentencing have been good for the nation on balance, the staggering size of the prison population has begun to raise some unsettling questions. Ten years after violent crime began to drop steadily, are we actually filling prisons faster at a time when there are fewer criminals to fill them with? And is violence really the reason many of them are locked up? As counterintuitive as it seems, it turns out to be difficult to demonstrate a relationship between incarceration rates and crime rates. Over the last three decades, rates of homicide and rape rose and fell like tides, with no clear causal relationship to the steady, nearly sixfold rise in the inmate population (and the corresponding surge in prison construction).4

In The Challenge of Crime, drawing on the work of criminologist Frank Zimring, Henry Ruth and Kevin Reitz argue that the incarceration boom ...

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