A Glance at America’s Incarceration Problem: Culprits, Costs and Responses

Nov 17, 2015 | Justice


If someone asked you to name the place with the highest incarceration rate on Earth, what answer would you give? Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba? In fact, the United States outranks all of these authoritarian regimes in the number of citizens imprisoned per capita. According to an Amnesty International report, the United States has only 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prison population, with over 2 million incarcerated citizens and an additional 5 million on probation or parole, despite a steady decrease in crime. The state of Louisiana imprisons more of its citizens per capita than anywhere in the world. Mass incarceration stems from a variety of sources and disproportionately affects minority communities. It also disenfranchises millions and costs American taxpayers billions of dollars, leading to numerous social and economic consequences. What’s behind the numbers of America’s drastic incarceration problem?

mass incarceration info-graphic
Infographic Source: ACLU
Culprit #1: Severe Drug Laws

One of the largest contributors to mass incarceration in America is the government’s attempt to curb drug use by implementing a set of policies known collectively as the War On Drugs. The American Civil Liberties Union reports that three-strike laws and mandatory minimums resulting from the War On Drugs often mean severe sentences where individuals may face life in prison without parole for a drug possession charge. Despite the harsh consequences of these policies, drug use has not declined, but the number of those imprisoned dramatically increased.  Over half of prisoners at the federal level are incarcerated on drug offenses, most with no prior criminal record or violent offenses. The War On Drugs has cost the United States over $1 trillion and disproportionately targets minorities. Blacks and whites exhibit similar rates of drug use, yet black individuals are incarcerated on drug offenses 10 times more frequently than white individuals. The War On Drugs has failed to reduce drug usage and has fueled America’s mass incarceration crisis.

Culprit #2: The Privatization of Prisons

The privatization of American prisons has exacerbated mass incarceration. As the number of prisoners has risen, states have struggled to fund prisons and contracted prison services to corporations in an attempt to lower costs. As a result, the number of private prisons rose by over 1600% between 1990 and 2009. Operators of private prisons profit from mass incarceration. According to The Sentencing Project, prison contractors have lobbied for policies that perpetuate mass incarceration by donating large sums of money to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a public policy organization that supports privatization and measures that result in longer prison sentences, such as three-strike laws. Over 40% of state legislators belong to ALEC, evidence of its large influence in state politics. Through working with organizations like ALEC, private prison contractors have helped secure legislation that continues to imprison more Americans.

Culprit #3: America’s Lingering Debtors’ Prisons

A third contributor to mass incarceration is the existence of de facto debtors’ prisons. Many of America’s poorest citizens find themselves in jail due to their inability to pay fines such as traffic tickets and legal fees. A report published by the American Criminal Law Review says that although the Supreme Court set constitutional limitations to imprisonment for inability to pay fines, people still end up incarcerated due to legal loopholes. Some arrests occur not for failure to pay a fine per se, but for other violations stemming from the fee. For example, missing a court-ordered payment can result in an arrest warrant for being in contempt of court. Some states allow private debt companies to add surcharges to existing debts, making it more difficult for poor individuals to pay their fines. People who fail to pay fees often lose their jobs due to their incarceration, perpetuating the poverty cycle. These imprisonments disproportionately affect poor individuals and add to the increasing number of prisoners in America.

The Fiscal Costs of Mass Incarceration

Mass incarceration costs Americans staggering amounts of money. The Hamilton Project compiled a study about the costs of mass incarceration. The report found that the United States spends over $80 billion on corrections expenditures — quadruple the amount spent in 1980. Additionally, it costs $29,000 to house each federal inmate and each US resident paid an average of $260 towards corrections expenditures annually.

The Degradation of Families and Political Rights

The Hamilton Project study also discusses the social implications of mass incarceration. Incarceration has broken up countless families.  2.7 million children in the United States have a parent in prison. An African American child with a father who dropped out of high school has over a 50% chance of seeing their father incarcerated by age 14. In addition, juvenile incarceration decreases the likelihood of high school graduation by 13% and increases the likelihood of imprisonment as an adult by 22%. Racial disparities also exist in imprisonment, with 1 in 3 black men and 1 in 6 Latino men facing a lifetime likelihood of imprisonment compared to 1 in 17 white males. Finally, mass imprisonment causes disenfranchisement. Due to laws that prohibit felons from voting, 1 in 13 African Americans and 5.85 million Americans cannot vote. Mass incarceration bars millions, most frequently minorities, from the political system.

Washington’s Response

Politicians have begun to recognize the growing crisis of mass incarceration. In July, President Obama presented a speech to the NAACP stressing the importance of addressing mass incarceration to help minority communities and save American taxpayers billions of dollars. In addition, Senator and presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders along with three House of Representatives members introduced legislation to ban private prisons, acknowledging their contribution to mass incarceration. Lastly, Republican Senator Chuck Grassley and Democratic Senator Dick Durbin introduced the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, which seeks to reduce penalties for non-violent and first-time offenders, decrease minimum mandatory sentences, and provide opportunities to shorten sentences once in jail.

Lawmakers must pass both bills to address this pressing issue. It is unjust that millions of Americans, disproportionately minorities, suffer in prison under unfair sentences and lose their political rights while corporations profit from their imprisonment. Mass incarceration wastes billions of dollars, breaks families apart, perpetuates poverty, and entrenches institutionalized racism. Americans must press their lawmakers to solve this ever-growing problem.

Image source: The New Yorker.