Why are Americans in general much tougher on crime than Europeans?

It seems that in Europe and other first-world nations, crime is dealt with an attitude of rehabilitation over retribution. They hand out significantly shorter prison sentences and the interior conditions are also a lot better, with the focus being on reforming the criminal so he or she can be a productive member of society once again.

In the United States however, a lot of people find such methods repulsive and believe that it’s just letting criminals off easily. In fact, many are afraid for this reason to vote for local officials who are “soft on crime”.

Interestingly though, we see that in terms of deterrence and actual crime rate, Europe seems to fair quite a bit better. The United States is still on the low side in terms of crime rate compared to a lot of third-world countries, but in comparison to other developed nations, it seems to be the highest.

First, show us your data.

Americans are tough on black people. And the poor. And other minorities.

Whether they committed a crime or not hardly even enters the picture.

From Wikipedia, list of countries by incarceration rate:

The United States of America: 693 prisoners per 100,000 population (2nd highest country)
United Kingdom (England & Wales): 146 prisoners per 100,000 population (101st highest country)
Spain: 131 prisoners per 100,000 population (116th highest country)
France: 103 prisoners per 100,000 population (145th highest country)
Italy: 89 (156th highest country)
Germany: 78 (165th highest country)


^ Look at pages 92-96 and 97-100

A Puritan moral zeal, among right and left alike.

Several studies have concluded that overall, more black males are in prison than are enrolled in colleges and universities.

The War on Drugs, and very esp. 3 strikes and you’re out - that caused the huge spike.

The US used to have lenient sentences, but then crime exploded. Violent crime doubled or almost doubled for three consecutive decades from 1960-1990. In response people started having a harsher attitude toward criminals. If the US had European levels of violent crime, they would have European attitudes toward criminals.

Racial tensions and growing socioeconomic disparity, I would imagine, were and have been some of the largest contributing factors to this increase in violent crime.

Not to mention private prisons, which make high profits (funded by the taxpayer) by having lots of prisoners.

Private Prisons Were Thriving Even Before Trump Was Elected

That is not a factor in incarceration rates. The UK also has plenty of private prisons.

You may want to rethink that assumption because it isn’t true in many cases. Your cites seem to equate crime rate with murder but that isn’t the only type of crime. The U.S. is notable for its rates of some violent crimes like murder and forcible rape but the total numbers of those are still fairly small and they tend to be targeted and driven by factors like gang activity. Anyone that thinks that overall crime is higher in the U.S. than Europe has never spent much time in both of them.

Many well-off European countries have overall crime rates, especially theft and occupied home invasions that are much higher than the U.S. The UK is notable in particular because it is similar to the U.S. culturally but its overall crime profile is very different and also much higher.

However, it is very difficult to compare crime statistics between countries accurately because the reporting rates and classifications vary dramatically. Still, here is an article that takes a crack at it in the most fair way available and it still shows that crime rates are much higher in the UK versus the U.S.

*"We thought Bier’s points were reasonable, so we tried to replicate his approach. We looked at the raw violent crime numbers for each country, using statistics for England and Wales for 2012 and for the United States for 2011, in a way that sought to compare apples to apples. (We should note that the United Kingdom includes Scotland and Northern Ireland, but the numbers in the meme appear to be based only on crime in England and Wales, which are calculated separately.)

For England and Wales, we added together three crime categories: “violence against the person, with injury,” “most serious sexual crime,” and “robbery.” This produced a rate of 775 violent crimes per 100,000 people.

For the United States, we used the FBI’s four standard categories for violent crime that Bier cited. We came up with a rate of 383 violent crimes per 100,000 people.

This calculation suggests that there is a higher rate of crime in England and Wales, but the discrepancy is not anywhere near as wide as the one cited in the meme."*

Uncle Cecil wrote an article on this once as well. I will see if I can find it.

In short, both the U.S. and many European countries have their own types of crime problems but the absolute number of crimes (and victims) per capita is higher in many European countries.

In short, crime reporting data isn’t worth a wank.

The three-strikes system greatly inflated the number of people in prison. I suspect that if you looked at the total percentage of the population ever incarcerated, instead of the total number currently incarcerated, that the US would probably fall more in line with Europe.

As for why? We had a significantly higher crime rate during the 80s/90s than Europe, and something “had to be done”. The three-strikes system seemed reasonable. (We’ll have to wait a generation or two - if it stays in effect - to make any sort of determination on that front, though without any other countries following suite, any data that one might draw from it will be contentious.)

One explanation commonly given is the effect of lead poisoning the air, which may have had a higher impact on the US due to our primarily car-based transport system. I’d probably suggest the after-effects of slavery and racial integration, making the US something more like a hybrid between the UK and South Africa, than a properly European nation. Despite starting the process of equalizing things in the 1800s, I think it’s safe to say that we’re still at least one generation off from fully equalizing everything, and probably more like two or three.

On the other hand, Europe may be heading for similar issues, due to the large influx of poor and culturally different peoples from the Middle East and Africa. I’ve certainly encountered many anti-Muslim racists in talking with Europeans on game servers and there has been a general rise in the crime rate across Europe. I could see three strikes laws becoming a thing there in the next decade.

Ah, but possibly if the US had European attitudes towards criminals, it would have or would be more likely to have European levels of crime. If the US first response to rising crime levels was harsher sentences, does that point to a cultural problem? An alternative response would be to consider why crime levels were rising, and whether anything could be done to address that.

As Velocity says, there’s a Puritan streak in the American national culture, and one way this manifests itself is a belief or assumption that it is the role of government to affirm what is morally right and to punish what is morally wrong. Contrast this with the more relaxed Catholic view, which is that it is the role of government to serve the common good. This leads to things like, e.g., different approaches to the legalisation/regulation of sex work on the one hand, versus the criminalisation of sex work on the other. And I think it may also be reflected in penal policy; harsh sentences for serious crimes are popular not because they are shown to be effective in protecting the community (though it’s often assumed that they are) but because they seem appropriate; they make the right moral statement on behalf of the community.


Americans hate each other. They don’t think any of the people they like ever commit crimes, or if they do then they didn’t mean it and should get off lightly. Everyone else needs to be punished severely because they were no good to start with.

I don’t want European levels of crime nor do most other people. As I pointed out earlier, crime is much more common in much of Western Europe than it is in the U.S. It is astounding how they turn a blind eye to pickpocketing, blatant child abuse especially among the Roma people and even occupied home invasions. It is certainly not the utopia that many liberals imagine.

The U.S. is just talented at really violent crime which, while terrible, affects relatively few innocent people. It isn’t an either/or proposition though. If the U.S. could get a better handle on really violent criminals instead of focusing on mostly victimless crimes like drug offenses, we would be better off and make us a clear winner in the criminality wars but that is easier said than done.

Likewise, European countries could learn something from the U.S. as well. If you throw truly habitable offenders in prison for a good long time, they aren’t going to be on the street robbing, beating, pillaging and causing general mayhem. This isn’t Mr. Roger’s neighborhood. There are some people that are going to abuse anyone and everything they can until a cold metal door slams in their face. I am certain that almost everyone reading this knows people that meet that description. Most of them are younger males with a storied and checkered past and have no real intention of doing better. The most effective strategy is just to lock them up until they age out of their sociopathic urges or just send them through the revolving door until they die in prison. You have a lot bigger heart than I do if you care about the habitual, violent offenders because I don’t - at all.

Cite? Note that getting a warning when you visited Venice, say, to beware of pickpockets, is not “turning a blind eye” to pickpocketing.

Funny you mention pickpockets in Venice. I almost had to drop tackle a street vendor in Venice once for making a run for a group of people’s luggage five minutes after I got there. I do not consider theft of that nature to be a minor crime especially when it may contain anything from travel documents to vital medicine. He left and then came back 20 minutes later. The police did nothing. That is only one of many episodes though and they weren’t all in overly touristy areas. Europeans don’t seem to care about property crimes much at all.

You don’t see that type of thing in the U.S. The police are more than happy to crack down on habitual criminals and I thank both them and the justice system for it. The U.S. didn’t used to be that safe when I was growing up in the 1980’s. Many places including parts of NYC and Los Angeles were flat-out dangerous. It is much better today and it isn’t because everyone suddenly found spirituality. The crackdowns eventually worked and they will work again if the current hotspots like Detroit and Chicago can get it together.

Here is a cite for you. Overall crime stats are difficult to compare between countries but it is clear that Europe trends higher than the U.S. We will shoot you if we have to but we won’t take your stuff or barge into your house while you are home. That is considered very gauche these days.