The U.S. is in the midst of a mass incarceration crisis. We have the highest incarceration rate in the world, and because of this, our prison population has increased exponentially in the past few decades.
Incarceration comes at an enormous human cost to prison inmates and their families. The government (and its taxpayers) bear its heavy financial cost. Moreover, studies show that incarceration does little to end criminal activity, and may actually make reoffending more likely.
Critics say it is an incredible social and economic issue in this country and should be addressed.
Advocates point to the War on Drugs as the initiator of America’s mass incarceration problem.
There’s actually much more to this story than meets the eye, though, as drug crime offenders make up a surprisingly small proportion of the incarcerated population. Things become quite complicated when we examine its underlying causes.
Read on to learn more about the real reasons behind mass incarceration.
Drug Offenders Comprise Fifteen Percent of the U.S. Prison Population
The War on Drugs was initiated in the 1980s by President Ronald Reagan. The initiative sought to eradicate illicit drug use in the U.S. Part of the plan included catching and prosecuting drug crime offenders.
Although this did lead to a spike in incarceration figures as drug crime offenders were locked up, these offenders represent a relatively small percentage of today’s prison population.
On average, only 15.7% of the current US prison population is comprised of drug crime offenders.
The majority of the prison population (over 50 percent) is comprised of violent offenders.
Note, however, that the primary reason the percentage of violent offenders has reached a majority is that violent crimes typically carrying longer prison sentences than drug crimes and property crimes.
More inmates are admitted to the U.S. prison system for drug crimes than for any other type of offense. Drug offenders simply serve much shorter sentences than violent offenders most of the time.
A little number crunching, and you’ll find an immediate release of all drug crime offenders would only modestly reduce the U.S. prison population.
At the same time, drug decriminalization would dramatically decrease the total number of people involved in the criminal justice system at all. What’s more, providing treatment rather than prosecution for addicts is thought to prove more effective in addressing our nation’s opiate epidemic.
So then, what is behind this social and economic detriment we know as mass incarceration?
The Poverty Connection
Poverty is strongly linked to incarceration for a number of reasons:
- Unmet Bail: Poor offenders are unable to afford bail, so are often held in jail for months to years prior to their trials.
- Public Defenders: Many poor offenders are unable to afford private legal representation. This means that poor offenders are more likely to be convicted, and are less likely to get a good plea deal to reduce the sentence.
- The Prison-Poverty Cycle: Incarceration and having a criminal record destroy wealth and decimate job opportunities, so poverty is an outcome of incarceration as well as a predictor. This perpetuates a vicious cycle.
Racial disparities in the criminal justice system are well-documented. Persons of color comprise an enormous proportion of the prison population.
These disparities are linked partly to poverty, as people of color are more likely to be affected by poverty. Additionally, statistics point to police being more likely to apprehend minority suspects, and juries more likely to convict people of color.
In order to effectively end mass incarceration, the necessary first step is to look beyond the contribution of drug crimes. Socioeconomic and racial disparities are a major contributor and should be addressed in policy reform aimed at reducing the incarceration rate.
About the Author:
Kimberly Diego is a criminal defense attorney in Denver practicing at The Law Office of Kimberly Diego. She obtained her undergraduate degree from Georgetown University and her law degree at the University of Colorado. She was named one of Super Lawyers’ “Rising Stars of 2012” and “Top 100 Trial Lawyers in Colorado” for 2012 and 2013 by The National Trial Lawyers. Both honors are limited to a small percentage of practicing attorneys in each state. She has also been recognized for her work in domestic violence cases.