Mass Incarceration's Toll on America
Mass Incarceration is one of the most important issues discussed in criminology and criminal justice classrooms. What have been the effects of mass incarceration? Did it lower crime? How much does it cost? These are just minor examples of the basic questions a student will be thinking about. So, let's try to address some of these questions and dig deeper into the issue of mass incarceration.
Firstly, in very basic terms, what explains America's push towards mass incarceration? While many explanations are available to explain mass incarceration United States, the most basic explanation is that policy makers, the media, and the public have strong beliefs that incapacitation and deterrence reduce crime. That is, many believe that the rate at which we imprison people is related to reductions in crime rates. However, in Alfred Blumstein and Joel Wallman's book "The Crime Drop In America," William Spelman clearly points out that violent crime reductions would have occurred without expanding the use of prison. Furthermore, Graham Farrell published a study in 2013 on the crime drop in which he argued that theories of crime drops must pass five basic tests. Of the five criteria for suitable explanations of the crime drop, Farrell noted that rising prison populations only satisfied one. Many scholars have also pointed out that crime dropped in many nations across the world, and prison populations seemed to have not played a role in this trend. For instance, Finland actually reduced their prison population while the United States was busy expanding its own prison population. Other nations had stable prison populations but saw similar crime drops as witness in the United States. The point is that there seems to be strong evidence suggesting that conventional thought concerning incapacitation and deterrence philosophies is wrong. Mass incarceration's relationship with reduced crime rates is nowhere near as significant as conventional thought leads us to believe.
So, deterrence and incapacitation philosophies acted as a catalyst and fuel for mass incarceration. Mass incarceration did not contribute greatly to the United States' decline in crime. Then, what have been the effects of mass incarceration? Well, according to the sentencing project, there are 2.2 million people currently in jail or prison in the United States and incarceration has increased by over 500% in the last four decades. This makes the United States, commonly referenced as "the land of the free," the nation with the highest incarceration rate in the world. No other nation incarcerates at a higher rate than the United States. We incarcerate individuals at a rate over 6 times greater than our neighbor to the north, Canada.
Worse yet, we do not incarcerate on equal terms. As you can see in the graphic below (thank you Sentencing Project), the lifetime likelihood of imprisonment for black men is 1 in 3 compared to 1 in 17 for white men.
The increasing prison population in America does correlate nicely with something though -- The War on Drugs. As the war on drugs gained steam, prison populations increased.
The public often forgets that many people in prison will reintegrate into society. These individuals will need jobs to actively contribute to society, and their prison records will create additional employment hardships. Likewise, according to the sentencing project, the felony convictions that coincide with prison sentences has resulted in 5.8 million individuals not being legally allowed to vote. Furthermore, mass incarceration in the United States now means that 1 in every 50 children has a parent in prison. This is the very real impact of the combined impact of the war on drugs and mass incarceration -- increased women in prison, racial disparities in incarceration rates, many citizens without voting rights struggling with a multitude of collateral consequences associated with felony convictions, and an substantial amount of children with parents in prison.