Table of Contents
Mass incarceration is a term often used by sociologists to refer to the substantial increase in the number of people imprisoned. As studies reveal, in the US, young African Americans comprise the largest population of incarcerated population in US prisons. As Benson (2015) observes, the US has the highest prison population worldwide and surpasses that of nations such as China that are considered repressive. The US prison population is estimated at 2 million people. Statistics further indicates that young African Americans living in impoverished neighborhoods have high chances of being incarcerated. A number of arguments have been provided explaining the increase in mass incarceration particularly among African Americans. One of the key arguments provided by a section of scholars is that mass incarceration seeks to control the African Americans in the same manner as the Jim Crow. It is within this backdrop that the paper will explore the current trend of mass incarceration in the US. In addition, the paper will examine the contributing factors as well as the effects of mass incarceration.
As mentioned earlier, the US has the highest rate of mass incarceration globally. Research indicates, approximately 90% of the prison population is made of men who are more prone to imprisonment as compared to women. Most of these men are young adults and mostly range between the ages of 20-30 years. A huge percentage of the prison population are less educated. This is because most of them come from poor backgrounds and thus have a high chance of dropping out of school. The rate is usually high among African Americans and followed closely by Latinos. In 2010, the incarceration rate decreased slightly in 34 states although 16 states experienced a notable increase. Historically, southern states have often recorded a high level of incarceration. This is explained by the tough policies in these states that led to the growth in the number of prisoners most of whom are imprisoned for minor crimes.
A variety of factors explains the high level of mass incarceration in the US. First, the extreme punitive action for minor and non-violent crimes is a key factor that explains the high incarceration rate, particularly in southern states. The adoption of the tough-on-crime policies by a number of states has led to the growth of the prison population. These policies have forced these states to build additional prisons to accommodate the rising level of convicts. As indicated by Benson (2015), the state of California has built over 20 prisons within a period of 30 years. However, only a single University campus has been built within that period. However, following the growing complaint by prisoners of the deplorable condition of the prison facilities, some of the states made efforts to cut down the prison population. As research indicates, between 2006 and 2012, the state of California managed to reduce the prison population by approximately 22%. This was way above the national average reduction (Benson, 2015).
The growing war on drugs is another factor responsible for the growth of the prison population. Before the US the government initiated the war on drugs, the US prison population was significantly lower compared to other western nations. Based on a recent report, the efficiency of the law enforcement has contributed minimally to the rising level of incarceration over a period of 30 years. This implies that the war on drug-related crimes and other factors are responsible for the high prison population. As Benson (2015) explains, drug-related crimes are rampant in inner cities that comprise mostly of the black and Hispanic population. This also explains the huge population of black and Hispanic in US prisons.
Another factor responsible for the growing rate of mass incarceration is the privatization of prisons. However, it is imperative to note that the private prisons are not a huge contributor to the high level of incarceration, as most people would assume. This is due to the low number of private prisons across the US. However, there are states such as New Mexico that have the higher number of private prisons. As such, it is in order to state that the rise in mass incarceration is politically-driven than market-driven. Currently, as research indicates, private prisons are becoming common, and thus they are likely to accentuate the incarceration in future. As explained by Benson (2015), since profit motivates private prisons, they are more likely to adopt shady tactics to increase further the number of people imprisoned.
Finally, the minimum sentencing for certain crimes has also led to the significant increase in the prison population. The state legislature passes these and thus inhibiting the judges’ ability to issue less punitive sentences on petty offenders. A survey conducted on a section of US population revealed that a majority of the respondents agreed that small- time offenders such as marijuana users should not be imprisoned. However, most of them were in support of maximum sentence for murders and violent crime offenders. As Benson (2015) explains, long sentences are increasingly becoming ineffective in achieving the rehabilitation objective. This is because certain prisoners are serving long sentences and are wrongfully convicted or reform in the course of their term. There is no point of keeping such prisoners incarcerated forever since the goal of prison rehabilitation is behavioral change. As indicated by a recent study, most prisoners serving life sentences are less likely to be rearrested once released as compared to those serving shorter terms.
Effect of Mass Incarceration
As noted earlier, mass incarceration is mostly rampant among people of color. Although it is argued that incarceration often means that the society is made safer, other argues that the negative effects are usually far-reaching particularly to the family and the community as a whole. As Crutchfield and Weeks (2015) indicates, mass incarceration further impoverishes those that are left behind. Studies show that families that have had a family member imprisoned are often left in despair and are more likely to suffer from depressive disorders. In addition, most of these families are broken apart, and this often affects the children who are often left to feed themselves. As a result, these children are more likely to engage in crime and stand a high chance of being incarcerated in Juvenile facilities.
As explained by Crutchfield and Weeks (2015), mass incarceration as over the years proven to achieve the opposite of rehabilitating the prisoner’s behavior. This is in the sense that majority of the prisoners serving short terms are more likely to be rearrested. Once released most of them either return to their previous criminal activities or engage in more advanced ones. However, this is not the case for prisoners serving long sentences. As indicated earlier, upon release, an individual that was previously serving a long sentence is less likely to be rearrested. As explained by Crutchfield and Weeks (2015) mass incarceration mainly targeting the minority is responsible for the growth of prison gangs. In most cases, prisoners from a particular ethnic or racial group team up with others. As established by a recent study, prison gangs are responsible for most deaths reported in prisons around the US.
Mass incarceration is a key issue that is rampant in the US. As indicated earlier, people of color make up the largest percentage of the prison population. The total population of African American is below 15%, yet they make up over 40% of the prison population. A section of scholars argues that the discriminatory aspect of the US criminal justice is responsible for this disparity (Benson, 2015). An African American is more likely to be convicted of a minor crime such as smoking bhang compared to a White American. As such, this calls for massive reforms of the criminal justice to eliminate this disparity.
- Benson, T. (2015). The 4 Biggest Reasons So Many Americans are Behind Bars. Retrieved February 21, 2017, from http://www.attn.com/stories/1382/fixing-americas-mass- incarceration-problem
- Crutchfield, Robert D., and Gregory A. Weeks (2015). “The Effects of Mass Incarceration on Communities of Color.” Issues in Science and Technology 32, no. 1. Retrieved from: http://issues.org/32-1/the-effects-of-mass-incarceration-on-communities-of-color/