• Vivian De Waart

Mass Incarceration: What needs to change?

Incarceration rates are at an all-time high right now. In the last 40 years, there has been a 500% increase in the United States prison and jail population. Right now there are 2.3 million people confined nationwide (Sawyer, Wagner). 1 in 12 people are incarcerated in private prisons which is a 47% increase since 2000 (Sentencing Project). These private prisons are typically federally owned and drain taxpayers of their money. Incarceration is extremely expensive and the U.S. spends approximately $270,000 billion a year for it (Vera).


Why is this occurring?


The cost of bail is one of the reasons the incarceration rate is so high. It is estimated that 600,000 people end up in prison each year but people go to jail about 10.6 times a year (Ofer). In addition to this, 555,000 people who are in jail are not convicted of their crime yet (Sawyer, Wagner). Many people are arrested but cannot afford bail so they must stay confined. The median bail amount is $10,000, which is a typical 8 months salary for the average detainee (Craigie, Grawert, Kimble). These people have no choice other than to stay in jail until their trials because they simply cannot pay the bail. With this, I propose that bail should be cheaper to make sure those who are arrested can pay it, which would reduce the incarcerated population. The cost of bail is so high as to act as an incentive to keep people in jail. Prisons profit off of keeping people in jail, but it is taxpayers that pay for incarcerated Americans to stay in prison.


The “War on Drugs” is additionally arresting and incarcerating people for drug offenses. The goal of the war on drugs is to reduce the number of illegal drugs distributed and used in the United States. Almost half a million people are incarcerated for a drug-related crime and police make over 1,000,000 arrests each year for drug possession. These arrests go on one’s criminal record which affects future sentences. People are often sentenced for longer amounts of time for other offenses if they already have one on their record. 1 in 5, or about 460,000 people who are in prison are in for a drug offense.


Another contribution to mass incarceration is longer sentences. More than ⅔ of the prison population is serving life sentences (Grawert, Lau). It is proven that an increase in incarceration does not decrease crime rates. “For every 10 percent increase in incarceration between 1980 and 2000, crime was only reduced by two to four percent,” (The Sentencing Project). People are often worried that offenders in prison are too dangerous to be released. However, people of violent or sex crimes are actually less likely to be rearrested after their release. Those in for sexual assault, including rape, actually have a rearrest rate of less than 20% (Sawyer, Wagner). These crimes often see decades or more of confinement for a crime that is likely to not even be committed again. Some experts believe in a 20-year cap for incarceration. They use the logic that a 21 year old arrested is highly unlikely to repeat the same crime when they are released at 41 due to maturity in their brain. For example, robbery crimes peak in 20-year-olds but by the time they are 30 the chances of committing this crime drop to 25% then in their 40’s it drops to 12.5% and nearly vanishes by the time they are 60 (Lopez).


Most confined youth are held for nonviolent crimes or even no crime at all. They are often held for drug crimes or are refugees awaiting placement with friends and family. Of the confined, 8,300 are in for nonviolent crimes. A lot of youth crimes are committed in groups and are often linked to drugs. Many immigrants are counted among those who are incarcerated. When they first arrive in the U.S. they are confined in rooms at border stations. Unaccompanied minors are transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). This is essentially prison with a different label on it.


Another thing to mention is the racism involved in incarceration rates. Many people are racially profiled and put into jail and prison for crimes they may not have even committed. 67% of the prison population consists of people of color even though they only make up 37% of the national population. “Overall, African Americans are more likely than white Americans to be arrested; once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted; and once convicted, they are more likely to face stiff sentences. Black men are six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men and Hispanichttp://www.sentencingproject.org/criminal-justice-facts/ men are more than twice as likely to be incarcerated as non-Hispanic white men,” (Sentencing Project).


What needs to be done?


Decriminalizing drug use and prostitution are ways to combat mass incarceration. “Smart legalization” would allow the use and sale of certain drugs but minimize the commercialization of them. This doesn’t necessarily promote drug use but allows for safer use and obtainment. 55% of Americans are in favor of decriminalizing drugs for possession and use. Passing a policy like this would lead to an estimated 460,000 fewer people incarcerated.


According to the National Criminal Justice Reference Service, 30% of inmates in women’s jails are convicted prostitutes. Decriminalizing prostitution is actually safer for women contrary to popular belief. Many sex workers seek isolated areas in order to not get caught by the police. It is seen that prostitutes even get harrassed and abused by many police officers and are often bribed or raped for sex work. Additionally, having the job title as a prostitute makes women avoid going to the police for issues like abuse and rape in fear that they would get arrested instead. Women are also more reluctant to carry condoms because of the policy that police can use possession of large amounts of condoms as evidence of prostitution. This heightens their risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. At the end of the day, prostitution is a way for women to make money and is often the only job they can find. Over 1 million women across the United States use sex work as their jobs (Lubin).


Each state must take action in reducing incarceration by passing the policies provided. Decriminalizing drug offenses and prostitution is nonharmful to the individuals themselves and the public surrounding them. These are nonviolent offenses and should be treated as such. It is more important to spend the funding on possible rehabilitation or treatment services. Mass incarceration drains taxpayers of their money and costs the U.S. billions. Those in for nonviolent crimes continue to have a criminal record which ruins their chances of getting many jobs and/or education. It is crucial to end the mass incarceration crisis and solve it by introducing new policies.