Thursday, December 22, 2011

Are Japanese people just saner than us?

[context: someone claimed that the US's high incarceration rate might be a product of more effective law enforcement]

That's an interesting theory. It kinda sounds sensible, and you can make a theoretical argument for it. After all, as one of the richest countries on the planet, wouldn't we be able to afford more security than other countries, in the form of better law enforcement and lower crime rates?

Let's test it, insofar as we can, by comparing it with other countries. If our superior incarceration rate is a sign of excellent law enforcement, then we should also see America as having a surprisingly low rate of violent crime.

Let's pick Japan.* According to Wikipedia, the US has 743 prisoners per 100,000 of population. Japan holds only 58 per 100,000.

If you think about it, the theory is already starting to come apart. US law enforcement might be better at catching criminals than Japanese law enforcement. But nearly thirteen times better? Sounds fishy. Law enforcement's ability to find people to incarcerate can't be the sole difference.

Now let's turn to crime statistics. The United States has a homicide rate of 4.8/100,000 (2010, according to Wikipedia ). That's really safe compared to some third world and developing countries (Honduras is #1 with 78/100,000), but you don't see any European Union countries beating us (Sweden 3.5, Ireland 1.25, Germany 0.84).

So we're middle of the pack worldwide, and practically the bottom of the pack of relatively well-off nations.

Where is Japan? 0.83/100,000. And they are unique in that their statistics count murder attempts and "planned murders" along with actual murders. Their real homicide rate is significantly lower.

The US has an only slightly larger police force**, not nearly enough to explain anything.
So it's not that our law enforcement is better, and it's not that we chose to buy more safety. Japan seems to simply have way fewer murderers, whether inside or outside the prison system.

So here are the possibilities I can think of:

  • Japanese people are just better, more moral people.
  • The Japanese invoke the death penalty far more often than we do. (Okay, I checked, and they don't. Since 1993, they've only been executing 1-7 people per year. Before that, they were executing people at a pretty good clip, though.)
  • Something about American society breeds violence.

I vote for option 3. For more details, here's a blog post I wrote about a book called "The Spirit Level."

* not at random, mind you... I'm making a point here, though other countries like Finland and Iceland could be used to make the same point.

** 233 officers/100,000 vs. 197 officers/100,000 in Japan. Source: It's not really significant when trying to explain the US's 13 times higher incarceration rate and nearly six times higher homicide rate.

*** Seems to be the case. Japan