Incarceration and Unemployment: U.S. and Europe

Ever since Bryan offered this bet on future unemployment rates in the U.S. and Europe, I’ve been wondering: how do incarceration rates affect those numbers?

Europe has consistently higher unemployment than the U.S., but the U.S. has far and away the highest incarceration rate in the world — .75% of the population. (World Prison Population List [PDF], compiled since 1992 by Roy Walmsley of the International Centre for Prison Studies.)

Only Russia comes even close, at .63%. (Canada: .12%. Australia: .13%. China .18%. Germany .09%.) Our rate is four to eight times that of most other countries.

Prisoners aren’t part of the unemployment calculation. They’re not counted as part of the work force, and they’re not counted as unemployed. There are various arguments about whether that makes sense (feel free to comment), but if we include them in the calculations, what do unemployment rates look like? In particular, Bryan’s bet makes me curious: How does U.S. unemployment compare to the EU15?*

Here are the numbers for 2008. Calculations based on labor force and unemployment figures from Eurostat.

Percent of (total work force + incarcerated population)

Incarceration Unemployment Total
EU15 0.2% 7.1% 7.3%
U.S. 1.5% 5.8% 7.3%

In 2008, all of the difference between EU15 and U.S. unemployment rates is accounted for by the prison population. The cynical view would say that we just imprison our unemployed, which doesn’t strike me as the most economically efficient arrangement. (Here putting aside any foolish notions of Christian charity or the like.)

I would have liked to do a fever graph comparing unemployment rate, incarceration rate, and combined rate over the years, but the data’s only available in fairly intractable country-by-country form, and I didn’t have time or energy for all the cutting and pasting. (I wrote to Mr. Walmsley and he was nice enough to reply, but he was unable to provide the data in a more usable form.)

Note: Eyeballing the data, I do not think incarceration accounts for the (significantly larger) differences in previous years. (I would suggest that the additional difference is mostly the result of labor-market and other market rigidities imposed by unions and government regulation — not the result of redistribution. But that’s another post.)

Perhaps one of my gentle readers might have the time and inclination to compile those years? Or, write to Roy Walmsley and ask him to provide a simple table of the data that only he has: prison population by country and year. All the other data, at least for OECD countries, is easily available.

* Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, United Kingdom.