I stumbled across some of these and, as I have recently Done My Bit to serve the Cause of Justice - well, I sat on a jury for a week and a half - my interest was piqued. They were produced by the International Centre for Prison Studies, an organisation of which I had never before heard and which, on investigation, turns out to be part of King's College, London. These statistics are in a report entitled World Prison Population List (eighth edition) and throw up some interesting facts. For example, the country with the highest percentage of its population behind bars is the USA with 756 prisoners per 100,000 of population followed by Russia with 629 and Rwanda with 604. China, perhaps surprisingly, has only 119, just three more than Canada (116). The figure for the UK is 131 and other European countries are Norway - 69, Italy - 62 and France - 96. India has just 33 prisoners per 100k population, and Japan 63.
What, I wondered, do these figures tell us? Is France, for example, so much more law-abiding than the USA? Or are the American police more efficient at catching criminals than are the French? And in any case, can we accept the accuracy of the figures? The Chinese figure, for example, appears extraordinarily low given what we hear of the country, or maybe they just execute more convicted criminals and that reduces the prison population. Or do the figures indicate a difference in the punishment systems in various countries? Could it be that Norway uses fines and/or community service sentences rather than imprisoning people?
Of course, the bare statistics alone really tell us nothing and we need much more information to interpret them properly. But isn't that the case with all statistics?