http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/23/us/23prison.html?_r=2&hp&oref=slogin&oref=slogin Inmate Count in U.S. Dwarfs Other Nationsâ By ADAM LIPTAK Published: April 23, 2008 The United States has less than 5 percent of the worldâs population. But it has almost a quarter of the worldâs prisoners. Skip to next paragraph American Exception Millions Behind Bars This series of articles examines commonplace aspects of the American justice system that are actually unique in the world. Previous Articles in the Series Â» Multimedia Prison Population Around the GlobeInteractive Graphic Prison Population Around the Globe Indeed, the United States leads the world in producing prisoners, a reflection of a relatively recent and now entirely distinctive American approach to crime and punishment. Americans are locked up for crimes â from writing bad checks to using drugs â that would rarely produce prison sentences in other countries. And in particular they are kept incarcerated far longer than prisoners in other nations. Criminologists and legal scholars in other industrialized nations say they are mystified and appalled by the number and length of American prison sentences. The United States has, for instance, 2.3 million criminals behind bars, more than any other nation, according to data maintained by the International Center for Prison Studies at Kingâs College London. China, which is four times more populous than the United States, is a distant second, with 1.6 million people in prison. (That number excludes hundreds of thousands of people held in administrative detention, most of them in Chinaâs extrajudicial system of re-education through labor, which often singles out political activists who have not committed crimes.) San Marino, with a population of about 30,000, is at the end of the long list of 218 countries compiled by the center. It has a single prisoner. The United States comes in first, too, on a more meaningful list from the prison studies center, the one ranked in order of the incarceration rates. It has 751 people in prison or jail for every 100,000 in population. (If you count only adults, one in 100 Americans is locked up.) The only other major industrialized nation that even comes close is Russia, with 627 prisoners for every 100,000 people. The others have much lower rates. Englandâs rate is 151; Germanyâs is 88; and Japanâs is 63. The median among all nations is about 125, roughly a sixth of the American rate. There is little question that the high incarceration rate here has helped drive down crime, though there is debate about how much. Criminologists and legal experts here and abroad point to a tangle of factors to explain Americaâs extraordinary incarceration rate: higher levels of violent crime, harsher sentencing laws, a legacy of racial turmoil, a special fervor in combating illegal drugs, the American temperament, and the lack of a social safety net. Even democracy plays a role, as judges â many of whom are elected, another American anomaly â yield to populist demands for tough justice. Whatever the reason, the gap between American justice and that of the rest of the world is enormous and growing. It used to be that Europeans came to the United States to study its prison systems. They came away impressed. âIn no country is criminal justice administered with more mildness than in the United States,â Alexis de Tocqueville, who toured American penitentiaries in 1831, wrote in âDemocracy in America.â No more. âFar from serving as a model for the world, contemporary America is viewed with horror,â James Q. Whitman, a specialist in comparative law at Yale, wrote last year in Social Research. âCertainly there are no European governments sending delegations to learn from us about how to manage prisons.â Prison sentences here have become âvastly harsher than in any other country to which the United States would ordinarily be compared,â Michael H. Tonry, a leading authority on crime policy, wrote in âThe Handbook of Crime and Punishment.â Indeed, said Vivien Stern, a research fellow at the prison studies center in London, the American incarceration rate has made the United States âa rogue state, a country that has made a decision not to follow what is a normal Western approach.â The spike in American incarceration rates is quite recent. From 1925 to 1975, the rate remained stable, around 110 people in prison per 100,000 people. It shot up with the movement to get tough on crime in the late 1970s. (These numbers exclude people held in jails, as comprehensive information on prisoners held in state and local jails was not collected until relatively recently.) The nationâs relatively high violent crime rate, partly driven by the much easier availability of guns here, helps explain the number of people in American prisons.