Tuesday, May 11, 2004

The 70-90% myth 

How much of the Iraqi prisoner abuse is a war issue and how much a law enforcement problem?

Many bloggers have already noted in recent days that prison abuse, often much worse than that practiced at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, unfortunately seems to be reasonably common in jails back in America (for the best summary on this point see "Wall Street Journal"'s James Taranto).

Now many news outlets have latched onto the statistic quoted in the original leaked Red Cross report that between 70 and 90% of Iraqi prisoners are arrested by mistake (which, I assume, means that they are either not guilty of the offences they are accused of, or the authorities are not able to prove they are guilty). This claim was based on unofficial estimates of unnamed military personnel in Iraq. I would ideally like to have more reliable numbers to work with, but for the sake of the argument I'll accept the 70-90% figure.

Now, much has been made of this statistic. I don't presume that Red Cross thinks that if the figure was, say, only 20% arrested by mistake (and therefore the other 80% actually guilty) that would make the abuse justified. Therefore, the implication seems to be that arresting people who turn up not to be guilty is in itself a form of abuse, and therefore an indictement on the conduct of the US occupation.

In the United States, unfortunately the most current statistics I could find were for the early 1990s. Thus, in 1994, the number of people arrested for murder was 22,100 and the number of people convicted was 13,068. This gives just over 59% of people arrested being found guilty, and therefore 41% of people being arrested by "mistake."

In the same year, 172,290 people were arrested for robbery and 65,829 convicted, which gives us just over 38% of people arrested being found guilty, and therefore 62% of people being arrested by "mistake."

Similarly, in 1994, 547,760 people were arrested for assault and 97,046 were convicted. This gives us just under 18% of people arrested being found guilty, and thus over 82% of people being arrested by "mistake."

(If any reader has got access to more up-to-date data, please let me know. I don't suspect though that there will be a great deal of difference.)

What does it all show? At the very least that even in the United States, with its advanced criminal justice system, anywhere between 41 and 82% of people arrested are also arrested by mistake. When you then consider the situation in Iraq, with its state of low-level conflict, limited resources, language and cultural barriers, you might realise that all things considered, the US authorities are not doing too badly.


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