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From time to time there would be American prisoners in the prison in which I worked in England. They were offered the choice of serving their sentence back home, but they never availed themselves of the opportunity. The American system, they said, was much more brutal and violent than the British, which is itself by no means known for its unflagging humanity. They preferred to stay where they were.

There is much about the American criminal justice system that is inclined to appall foreigners, and no doubt many...