D’Amico Looks at Mass Incarceration Rates Around the World

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Daniel J. D’Amico, a visiting political science professor at Brown University, began his talk on Nov. 14 by posing a question to the audience: “Why do you think some nations jail more than others?”

D’Amico’s lecture ‘Why Nations Jail?’ explored the United States’s mass incarceration numbers as compared to other countries around the globe. Although the U.S. makes up 5 percent of the world’s population, it locks up more than 20 percent of the world’s prisoners. D’Amico has dedicated his career to understanding mass incarceration, and he offered insights throughout his talk about how the U.S. can solve this problem.

D’Amico showed students a map of the world, which revealed that the U.S. incarcerates higher numbers of people than similar Western democracies like France and England. In fact, U.S. incarceration numbers are closer to those of China and Russia.

“My first hunch in looking at cross-country incarceration rates is that we must embrace the idea that institutions matter,” D’Amico said.


“Our explanation for increased incarceration rates must be accountable with global trends.”

-Daniel D’Amico, a visiting political science professor at Brown University


He explained that various institutions in the U.S., like political, economic, and cultural systems, have rules that shape the ways people behave. People can peacefully live under these institutions, or attempt to break free, often increasing crime rates.

In one graph, D’Amico revealed the drastic increase in U.S. mass incarceration rates over time. He explained that the slope of rates since 1920 to the present was so steep that the graph had become the shape of a hockey stick. He then compared the U.S. incarceration rates to other countries’ rates. He showed that if one combined the increase in incarceration rates of several other countries such as France, England, Portugal, etc, the U.S. would still have a higher rate of incarceration.

D’Amico offered a few typical, America-focused explanations for the discrepancies between the U.S.’s incarceration rates that are often referred to in societal discussion. These explanations, however, are not sufficient to be the main cause of the U.S’s astronomically high rates, he said.

He acknowledged that racial inequality and the legacy of Jim Crow may contribute to these large numbers. This reasoning, however, proves insufficient for explaining global trends. Although it is true that racial tensions exaggerate problems of mass incarceration, he explained that America’s past experience with Jim Crow is not necessarily shared by a number of countries around world that have experienced growth in mass incarceration numbers.

Another explanation is that the conservative politics of the Nixon and Reagan eras caused mass incarceration, because these presidents had “tough on crime” policies. Former President Bill Clinton has also been accused of causing mass incarceration for a similar policy enacted in 1994, which was an issue early on in this year’s election cycle. Because other nations have not endured the partisan trends the U.S. has experienced in the past, however, this explanation is not sufficient enough to explain global trends of mass incarceration.

Finally, D’Amico explained that drug prohibitions in the U.S. could be a more realistic explanation for mass incarceration. Without drug offenses, however, the U.S. prison population would have increased four times instead of five times since the 1970s. He noted that these statistics on the impact of the drug war are not significant enough to serve as the primary cause for mass incarceration.

In the end, D’Amico suggested that mass incarceration came down to legal organization principles, and whether a country had a common law or civil law system. A common law country has a big economy and a small government, resulting in higher incarceration rates, and a civil law country has a small economy and a big government, resulting in lower incarceration rates.

He suggested that instead of the reasons that Americans often state for mass incarceration rates, people should look first at the institutions and their failures to explain this phenomenon.

“Our explanation for increased incarceration rates must be accountable with global trends,” D’Amico said.

Featured Image by Julia Sandquist / Heights Staff