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Our Underincarceration Problem

El Salvador may not show the way, but it does give a direction.

El Salvador: gang members transferred to 40,000-capacity âmega-prisonâ
(Photo by Press Secretary Of The Presidency Of El Salvador / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Readers of headlines will, by now, have seen that Nayib Bukele’s strongman war on gangs has gone very well. Readers of The American Conservative might recall the president of El Salvador as the bitcoin commandant; his effort at futuristic monetary policy went less well. But that was 2021, and this is 2023, and though no one is pretending Bukele’s methods are liberal democratic—not even Bukele, who declared a state of exception—they are earning him fans across Latin America, where gang and cartel violence is everywhere, along with some sympathy for caudillos

After arresting more than 60,000 “alleged” gang members—these guys have face tattoos—in the last year in a country of some 6.3 million, Bukele has unveiled a new “mega prison” that can house 40,000. As you might expect, headlines in the liberal imperium evince worries about human rights. But the results of this exercise in executive sovereignty are also pretty clear: Murders dropped 56.8 percent last year, and El Salvador is enjoying widely noted peace and safety.


It turns out that if you remove alleged murderers from the general population there are fewer murders. America could take note of this. We have murderers, too, and not all of them are locked up. This would be a qualified note, since we have a constitutional system that guarantees our civil rights, and so we would not remove alleged murderers from the general population but rather convicted murderers. But there is still inspiration to take from Bukele’s success, as a rising tide of locked up murderers lifts all boats. It is not that far from home, too. 

After all, as TAC senior editor Rod Dreher reminded readers on his blog Monday, MS-13 has a significant presence in the greater D.C. area; as in El Salvador, many of our murders are part and parcel with gang activity. El Salvador’s success shows that—though it will be a difficult reality to accept for some—if we want law and order, rather than anarchy and violence, as a matter of domestic policy, then the United States of America have an underincarceration problem.  

Let us look at the numbers, which, while not complete or even truly precise, are clear. The FBI’s Crime Data Explorer tells us that “In 2021, there were 13,537 homicide incidents, and 14,716 offenses reported in the United States by 11,794 law enforcement agencies that submitted National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) data, and covers 64% of the total population.” According to the Murder Accountability Project: “This means police reported only 56.6 percent of the nation's homicides in 2021, the worst reporting rate on record,” because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had counted 25,988 murders in 2021 as of October of last year. 

Updated numbers from the CDC put the 2021 homicide figure at 26,031. Various estimates of the 2021 clearance rate indicate that only half of homicides were solved. Since if there had been a dramatic improvement to any of this in the last year we would have heard about it, that means, simply put, there are a lot of murderers on the loose in America.

The U.S. prison population was 1,204,300 at the end of 2021, “a 1% decrease from 2020 (1,221,200) and a 25% decrease from 2011 (1,599,000)” according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. There could very well be a host of reasons why some of those individual prisoners do not belong in their cells, but there is no case to be made that the total number should be smaller. 

We have stuck to the murder issue here, but reporting and clearance rates for sexual assault and property crime are also very not good. Our crime situation is not El Salvador’s, thank God, and we probably do not need nearly 2 percent of our adult population to be incarcerated to see improvements to general law and order. But a very general examination of our law enforcement successes or lack there of suggests that some 0.3 percent (1,204,300 compared to a population estimate of 331.9 million), or even the 0.7 percent figure often thrown around by activists, is too small.

We are, as gun control advocates like to endlessly remind us, a distinctly violent people compared to peer nations in Europe. On that count, at least, they are right. Justice for the victims of that violence demands that more cases be solved, more arrests be made, and more sentences be carried out. Indeed, that is where real criminal justice reform should begin: taking a justice system that fails at its most fundamental work, removing murderers from the general population, and reforming it to protect those who live in peace from those who kill. Homo homini lupus est.