Mass incarceration ranks high among the most significant social problems that the United States faces in contemporary times. While the United States makes up approximately five percent of the world’s population, it makes up 25 percent of the global prison population. These figures highlight the fact that something is fundamentally wrong with the justice system that occasions mass incarceration the United States. The popular narrative explaining mass incarceration is that it was a consequence of the war on drugs that led to policymakers in the country embracing draconian criminal-justice policies that encouraged stricter sentencing. Politicians in the 1970s, wanting to seem as acting against the drug problems, worked towards establishing more extreme measures of policing and longer mandatory minimum sentences (Forman). In essence, they made the country’s criminal justice systems the primary tool for dealing with the social ills in the nation.
Accordingly, these measures occasioned a rapid growth in incarceration resulting in the mass incarceration situation in the United States. Mass incarceration and the policies that cause this phenomenon have been much-discussed issues in the United States’ public domain. The central discussion has been about the purpose, effectiveness, and outcomes of an incarceration system that relies on heavy-handed sentencing. The extensive mass incarceration prison system in the United States is an inefficient system only serves to impose significant socioeconomic, racial and political costs.
The 1990s saw lawmakers camping primarily on the platform of getting tough on crime. This campaign stirred the proliferation of the construction of prisons and associated increased incarceration rates. Advocates of the mass incarceration result highlight the fact that the crime rates fell steadily during this period in an apparent reversal of the upward trend that had characterized the period between the 1960 and 1980s to support the need for these harsher measures (Clear). While there is no particular consensus on what to attribute the overall sharp fall in crime rates, rising incarceration rates are regarded as one of the central contributory factors for the decline. Other factors include the reduction of the drug epidemic that characterized the 1980s and early 1990 along with increased policing (Stone).
The United has experienced an over 51 percent decrease in violent crime and over 43 percent decrease in property crime. However, while these figures point to the fact that there has been a crime reduction in the country, the spending and investment in imprisonment and jailing have grown significantly to almost 81 billion dollars in 2010. The reactionary politics featuring anger and fear resulted in harsh policies that have maintained a high level of incarceration in the country. Measures such as mandatory minimum sentences and exceedingly harsh and racially unequal penalties for minor offenses, as well as, an explosion in life sentencing without parole have all worked to cause the unmatched, unprecedented rates of incarceration in the country.
The increased rates of incarceration have caused the insufficiency of prison space occasioning the need for private prisons. In fact, for-profit private prisons grew from five in number in 1998 to one hundred in 2008 following a clamor for the increased profits due to an investment in the prison system. Resultantly, the increased incarceration rates have created incentives for imprisonment hence impeding on the sentencing law reforms that would underscore and advance rehabilitation objectives and decrease the prison population in the United States.
A lack of such reforms has meant that the costs of incarceration have been consistently high translating to high costs on the economy. Mass incarceration presents both the federal and state governments with significant expenses. In particular, the cost of housing an inmate in federal prison per year stands at above 29,000 dollars (American Law Institute ). The Department of Justice revealed that the country spent in excess of 80 billion dollars on costs of inmates’ correction. Over 90 percent of the costs came from local and state levels of incarceration (Clear). Ultimately, the mass incarceration in the United States has been a result of an inefficient system that has placed profits rather than rehabilitation as its primary incentive. The resultant high costs also translate to an increased burden on the economy.
Mass incarceration has also had significant social costs. For one, imprisonment, even for minor crimes, causes tangible costs like lost earnings, victimization, and stigmatization. It also causes intangible costs of suffering and pain. The primary effects of the mass incarceration have been on low-income populations and individuals hence legit concerns regarding the propagation of inequality. Previous research highlights that the victimization rates for all forms of individual crimes are comparatively higher for low-income household members.
The unprecedented levels of incarceration, therefore, present profound impacts on the disadvantaged populations. In addition to the victimization, research reveals that increased incarceration rates have impacted adversely on the marriage and employment prospects among former prisoners. In turn, the mass incarceration has worked expanding the depth of poverty among the disadvantaged populations while also causing a rise in behavioral issues among the children in these communities; and amplifying the spread of communicable diseases among the populations experiencing the disproportionate impacts of mass incarceration (Equal Justice Initiative).
Typically, the adverse impacts of increased incarceration have affected specific demographic groups such as young males from minority groups. Such demographic groups are vulnerable due to the many challenges that they face such as the consistent and continuous challenge in the search for employment or the struggle to have productive lives after being released from incarceration. Critics have, therefore, perceived mass incarceration as stemming primarily from seeming racist persecution of young minority (especially African American) men for drugs and other related minor crimes (Foreman). This biased approach to fighting crime has resulted in the overpopulation of American prisons with nonviolent lawbreakers. Indeed, it is the realization that mass incarceration has been, in essence, a section of Americans – mainly white, imposing horrors of subjugation on other Americans – the minority, that has led to a steadily progressing anti-prison campaign.
The mandatory sentencing approach has left offenders serving disproportionately longer sentences relative to their minor offenses. This approach has led to mass incarceration and growing prison populations creating a trend whose trajectory contrasts that of declining crime. As above mentioned, the negative results are also associated with making incarceration a commercial activity. Specialized lobbyists and private business people have favored the construction of significantly more prisons that has, in turn, necessitated the incarceration of more people to enter the system. One of the most visible signs of this exploitation is the fact that more local communities select to build prisons as replacements for closing factories as a way of getting a consistent source of decent earnings for the working class made up primarily of white men.
Arguably, although there has been a suggested link between high rates of incarceration and reduced crime rates, it is increasingly clear that the primary effects of mass incarceration have been the imposition of significant costs on the American society. It has had long-term negative impacts on communities, households, and individuals especially by introducing severe social and economic challenges (Stone). However, questions still remain among policymakers and scholars of the criminal justice system on whether the United States’ incarceration rates are too high. The central issue is whether the social costs of mass incarceration surpass the associated social benefits.
In conclusion, the extensive mass incarceration prison system in the United States is an inefficient system only serves to impose significant socioeconomic, racial and political costs. Despite some supporters associating increased incarceration with decreased crime rates in the country, the reality is that the social costs of this practice far outweigh the social benefits. The origin of increased incarceration rates in America was the stricter focus on fighting drugs and associated criminal activities.
However, no justification exists for the proliferation of the prison population in contemporary times that are characterized by reduced crime rates. Clearly, there is an existing bias caused by the inequality gap between the rich and powerful and the lower class that characterizes the mass incarceration. Ultimately, mass incarceration retains its high rank among the most significant social problems that the United States faces in contemporary times. Its social and economic costs on the individual, community, and nation as a whole are clearly more than the potential benefits. There is, therefore, a critical need for the review of the criminal justice system and especially on sentencing and incarceration.
- American Law Institute . Model Penal Code: Sentencing. Philadelphia: American Law Institute, 2011.
- Clear, Todd. Imprisoning Communities: How Mass Incarceration Makes Disadvantaged Neighborhoods Worse. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
- Equal Justice Initiative. Mass Incarceration. 2017. 14 November 2018.
- Foreman, James. ‘Racial Critiques of Mass Incarceration: Beyond the New Jim Crow.’ n.d. law.yale.edu. 15 November 2018.
- Forman, James. ‘Why Care About Mass Incarceration?’ Georgetown Law Faculty Publications and Other Works 370 (2010).
- Stone, Randolph N. ‘Mass Incarceration: Perspectives on U.S. Imprisonment.’ University of Chicago Law School Roundtable 7.91 (2000): 91-137.