The phrase “mass incarceration” is one heard far too often, but what does it really mean?
Simply put, it means that the U.S. imprisons more people than any other nation in the world, leading the prison population rate. America’s inadequate approach to punishment fails to consider public safety, disproportionately affects minorities, and imposes excessively harsh sentences.
“Other countries do not use prison as a one-size-fits-all solution to crime”
Incarceration in the U.S. has increased by over 500% in the past 40 years. The United States accounts for roughly 5% of the world’s population, however, we hold 25% of the world’s prison population. The U.S. is made up of 1,833 state prisons, 110 federal prisons, 3,134 local jails, 218 immigration detention facilities, and military prisons, imprisoning a total of 2,300,000 people.
In 1971 Nixon launched his war on drugs and incarceration rates began to climb. This issue was enhanced during the 1980s and 1990s, which was the rise of a new era, the “tough-on-crime” era. The “tough-on-crime” era began on June 19th, 1986 when college basketball player, Len Bias died from a cocaine overdose, turning his murder into a political debate during the mid-term election year. Following Bias’s death, Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which distributed an increased amount of funds to prisons, drug education, and treatment; the main goal of the law was to create mandatory minimum prison sentences for any drug related charges, while disproportionately affecting African-Americans. By 1993, more Americans believed the purpose of prison is to punish, not to rehabilitate.
When Willie Horton, an African American convicted murderer didn’t return after a weekend furlough program in 1988, white Americans made their thoughts clear, telling officials, they “couldn’t have Black criminals all across the country raping our white women and children”; making it perfectly clear that they believe the primary goal of prison is to punish, not rehabilitate. And so, in 1994 President Clinton passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act.
This bill allocates more money for prisons and encourages states to implement more punitive laws, harsher sentences, and the implementation of three-strike laws, all with a common goal of increasing incarceration. This bill, drafted by then-Senator Joe Biden, concurs with the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s recommendation to revisit all mandatory minimum drug sentences. Because of this bill, millions of dollars went into building more state prisons, hiring more police, and giving them military-grade equipment.
“Pretrial detainees make up around 74% of the jail population within the United States”
Nearly half a million people are currently awaiting trial in state prisons across the U.S., meaning they’re still legally innocent. The phrase, “innocent until proven guilty” means nothing in the eyes of state prisons, where low-income citizens and people of color more than often can’t afford bail, forcing them to sit in jail for months, or even years, awaiting trial. Meanwhile, millions of white, wealthy people accused of the same crime can buy their freedom.
“The average felony bail bond amount in the U.S. is set at $10,000, which is roughly the equivalent of 8 months’ income for a typical detained defendant.”
Taxpayers in the U.S. pay over $80 billion each year to keep prisoners detained. The cost of mass incarceration, including the impact on families and state and federal governments, is around $182 billion. According to The Marshall Project, “The Prison Policy Initiative estimates that families spend $2.9 billion a year on commissary accounts and phone calls. Families are also often responsible for paying court fees, restitution and fines when a member goes to prison.”
The U.S. also holds the lead for the largest private prison industry in the world, with thirty-one states and the federal government detaining 116,000 people within these private prisons, representing 8% of the total state and federal prison population. According to the Sentencing Project, between 2000 and 2016, “the number of people housed in private prisons increased five times faster than the total prison population,” while the “proportion of people detained in private immigration facilities increased by 442 percent.”
The effects of incarceration go far beyond costly issues. While the 13th Amendment protects against cruel and unusual punishment, most prisons are at max capacity, with inhumane living conditions, exploitation of labor, and a disregard for proper care of prisoners, specifically during times of emergency or during the pandemic.
Detainees are five times more likely than the general public to be infected with HIV. And, roughly 10 to 20 percent of incarcerated individuals suffer from a serious mental illness, which is often left untreated or made worse during their time in prison.
Former prisoners often feel the effects of their incarceration long after they’ve been released. In many states, individuals who are on parole/probation aren’t allowed to vote, and in an alarming 9 states, people who have been convicted of a felony can never vote again. Additionally, a prior conviction impacts an individual’s ability to secure federal benefits or get a job.
Families and communities of incarcerated individuals also feel the effects of incarceration. Children whose parents are involved in any criminal justice system more than often face psychological strain, antisocial behavior, suspension from school, economic hardship, and are six times more likely to become involved with criminal activity. Furthermore, partners of prisoners often struggle economically and live with depression.
Mass incarceration has crushing consequences. We can work to build a better system. But, before exploring how to fix the problem, we must acknowledge the root. We can no longer stand idly by and tolerate our government placing so many behind bars, providing unfair treatment to racial and ethnic minorities, and dissipating public resources.
It’s time to improve our criminal justice system.