Rule of Law and U.S. Incarceration Rates

Here are a few things I learned today:

  • The United States has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. (With the exception of Seychelles, whose 780something prisoners in a country roughly the size of Bend, Oregon, gives it top billing.)
  • Our nearly 700 prisoners per 100,000 people is five and a half times (586% higher than) the incarceration rate of China. It is nearly 50% higher than the incarceration rate of the Russian Federation.
  • In terms of raw numbers, the United States has half a million more prisoners than China and nearly one and a half million more prisoners than the Russian Federation. These are the three nations that sit atop the world-wide census of prisoners.
  • I’d still rather take my chances in the US than China or Russia. But I wonder if that is because I am white? The overall prison rate here is 700 per 100,000 people. But the rate for black Americans is 2,207 per 100,000. For white Americans the rate is 380. That is a difference of 580%–roughly the difference in overall incarceration rates between the U.S. and China.

I poked around in all this as I was thinking about the question of “the rule of law.” More specifically, I was thinking about how dangerous it is for someone like Jesus to come along and say that his position of authority gives him an ultimate authority that is not completely subject to the law.

A couple of my early musings included:

(1) Being a people governed by rule of law, as we are the U.S., can be a great ideal. However, in practice it might mean that we over-legislate, over-condemn, and therefore end up with a society whose flourishing is stunted precisely by these laws.

(2) There is no such thing as rule of law, full stop. There are only laws enacted and enforced by people.

So while I don’t want to abandon law for a lawless royal rule, law will never be enough. There must always be the right people legislating, enforcing, and judging.

And, if someone came along who was perfectly able to selflessly set aside the law for ends other than his or her own gain, wisely knowing what would truly be in the best interests of the person under indictment; i.e. if there was ever a perfect person, I would be happy to have such a one rule with revisionist appropriation of the law.

I guess what I’m saying is that I’m glad Jesus acted with such freedom.

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