In our latest WJP Data Insights exploration, we take a look at what the WJP Rule of Law Index can tell us about a criminal justice system that possesses both the largest prison population and the highest incarceration rate globally.
In the final days of 2018, the President of the United States signed into law the First Step Act, a sweeping set of reforms aimed at making vast improvements to the country’s criminal justice system. Passed with bipartisan support from Republicans and Democrats in Congress, the First Step Act aims to address significant problems in the U.S. criminal justice system—problems that are reflected starkly in the 2019 WJP Rule of Law Index 1.
Taking into account the influence of police, lawyers, prosecutors, judges, and prison officers, Factor 8 (Criminal Justice) of the Index ranks the United States as 23rd out of 126 countries and 16th out of the 24 countries in the European Union, European Free Trade Association, and North America region (EUNA). Factor 8 is furthermore the worst-performing rule of law factor for the United States, and General Population Poll survey data show that Americans perceive considerable weaknesses in their criminal justice system. (See chart: Factor 8: Criminal Justice)
While the United States maintains a high global rank and an average rank among countries within the EUNA region, the country’s criminal justice score has been in near constant decline since the 2015 iteration of the Rule of Law Index. (See historical data.)
The First Step Act
Two major provisions of the First Step Act aim to reduce recidivism and ease mandatory minimum sentence requirements — both practices known to perpetuate discrimination in the American criminal justice system. In line with these concerns, WJP Rule of Law Index data show that over the last four years, Americans have consistently viewed the U.S. criminal justice system as biased and discriminatory. The U.S. criminal justice score in the Index is markedly low overall, but the sub-factor measuring perceptions of impartiality and discrimination has consistently driven the low performance for the overall score since 2015. (See chart: Criminal Justice Data Trends in the United States)
Furthermore, the sub factor measuring impartiality and discrimination (8.4) is below the average not only for other high-income countries, but also below the average for low-income countries. Compared regionally, the United States scores below the average of every region in the world except one, South Asia.
With a score of .36 for Sub-Factor 8.4, the United States ranks 91 out of 126 countries globally and 23 out of 24 countries within the EUNA region. (See chart: Sub-Factor 8.4: Criminal Justice System is Impartial and Non-Discriminatory Score by Country in the EUNA Region)
WJP General Population Poll data provides further evidence of Americans' perceptions of discrimination within the U.S. criminal justice system. When asked about a situation in which police detain two persons equally suspected of committing a crime, 59% of Americans believe that a person from an ethnic group other than that of the police officer is at a disadvantage, 62% of Americans believe that a poor person is at a disadvantage, and 69% of Americans believe that a foreigner (immigrant) is at a disadvantage. (See chart: When asked about a situation in which police detain two persons equally suspected of committing a crime...)
However effectively the First Step Act may go on to improve discriminatory practices in the U.S. criminal justice system, it is important to note that the reform is confined to the federal system; a significant limitation as only 10% of prisoners are incarcerated in the federal system. Despite the limitations of First Step Act, Lucy Lang, Executive Director of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution, expressed a positive outlook on the future of discriminatory practices in the U.S. criminal justice system.
“We are in an exciting moment in the United States because the growing perception of discrimination in the criminal justice system by Americans is encouraging lawmakers and law enforcement to improve and lessen if not entirely eliminate discrimination in their practices," Lang said in response to WJP data trends. "I’m hopeful that we’ll start to see an increased rate of change as the system responds to the demands of the public based on the increased awareness of discrimination."
Update, July 25, 2019: Over 3,000 federal inmates were released on Friday, July 19 as part of the criminal justice overhaul of The First Step Act.
1 The WJP Rule of Law Index measures rule of law performance across eight factors and 44 sub-factors in 126 countries. Country scores are scaled from 0.00 to 1.00, with 1.00 representing the strongest adherence to the rule of law.