Mass Incarceration in the United States: What does It Indicate?

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US correctional system is infamous for its highest rate of mass incarceration. Although the crime rate and prison populations have been on the rise across the globe for the past few decades, the bizarrely high incarceration rate of the United States indicates serious system flaws. Mass incarceration in the United States poses a potential threat to society in several respects. Majority of the individuals detained are poor minority men with less than high school education. Also, studies show that men constitute a significant part of the prison population in the country.

Mass Incarceration: Statistics

 Another notable characteristic of the US prison population is that compared to other segments, people aged between the 20s and 30s, those with poor education, and Blacks and Latinos are significantly high in prisons. “As of 2010, more than one-third of African American male high school dropouts aged 20 to 39 were in jails or state or federal prisons” (Western).

Although researchers are deeply at odds regarding the causes of Mass Incarceration in the United States, new laws and initiatives like ‘war on drug’, ‘mandate sentencing’ ‘private prison’ along with strategic failures and corruption in law enforcement, correctional facilities, and rehabilitation have contributed to this serious issue.

War on Drugs & Mass Incarceration in the United States

‘War on drugs’ is a strategic failure in the context of prison overcrowding as it has not yet made any significant change in drug abuse rates in the country. As per National Prisoner Statistics Program, in 1980, the rate of the prison population was 15 inmates per 10, 0000 adults whereas it rose to 148 in 1996 (Engel, Business Insider, April 23, 2014). The report also says that in 2009, people confronted drug charges accounted for 1.66 million among which 4 of 5 were for drug possession only (Engel, Business Insider, April 23, 2014). When compared with other offenses like assault or theft, this rate was alarmingly high. Evidently, this crime trend has altered the legal and ethical parameters of US society.

Mass Incarceration: How does It Affect the US Community?

Many US states have already started seeking alternatives to the conventional criminal justice system. Undoubtedly, people of color always confront discrimination under the current judicial system. Hence they are likely to be held, convicted and punished easily. This category gets the mandatory minimum compared to the white people caught for the same offense.  There are more than 2 million children in US households whose one or both parents are in prisons. And among those children, one in nine black children have an incarcerated parent. When it comes to Latinos and White, the rate is one in 28 and one in 57 respectively.

However, some are of another opinion. People like John Pfaff, Fordham University criminal justice expert, claim that among state detainees, only 16% are serving time on a drug charge. And, maybe “5 or 6 percent of them are both low level and nonviolent”  (as reported by Lopez, May 30, 2017). Also, among the detained, more than 50% in state prisons were for violent crimes (Lopez). However, these arguments do not sustain since there is a positive shift to the other camp at the government levels. 

Private Prison: How does it implicate Mass Incarceration in the United States?

The private prison system is another contributing factor for mass incarceration and associated troubles in the US concerning crime management. As per The Sentencing Project report, in 2015, the total number of incarcerated people in the US was 126,272, which represented 8% of the entire state and federal prison inhabitants. Also, since 2000, there has been a 45% increase in the number of people housed in private prisons (‘Private prisons in the United States’). And, another major argument is against big brands using prison labor, which according to many is modern slavery.

Like any other private business entity, private prison also will focus on profit. Profit of a private prison grows only if it gets more and more accommodation. On the other hand, public prisons are not profit-driven institutions. And, the government may have some incentive programs for its smooth running even if the number of inhabitants goes down. Private prisons tend to retain as many people possible to ensure their profitability. Therefore, dysfunction and right violations are likely in private prisons.  As Hadar Aviram points out, increased spending on imprisonment has become part of the correctional system in the US today. It is a business run by “a set of bureaucratic, political, and economic interests” groups. “Prison construction in the United States” is “a seemingly unstoppable momentum” and the prison-industrial complex (PIC) is the “confluence of special interests” that guides “the nation’s criminal-justice policy behind closed doors” (Aviram).

Evidence for how private prisons implicates mass incarceration in the United States

Apparently, private prisons are part of a profit-driven business, and it has nothing to do with the public welfare. It is strictly against the norms of democracy. According to the data of The Sentencing Project, since 2000, six US states avoided the use of private prisons due to cost and safety concerns. And, the other 6 witnessed a 40% decline in the use of private prisons during the same term. This is a good sign of strategic improvement in the criminal justice system.  

Scholars like Pfaff (as Gopnik reports) do not think that private prisons contribute to mass incarceration in the United States. According to Pfaff, neither the war on drugs nor the private prisons cause incarceration increase, but it is the prosecutors who take rewards for locking people inside. He calls them ‘political creatures’ (Gopnik). Although this argument seems reasonable, private prisons’ contribution to the high incarceration rate is undeniable.

Mentally Ill people and Mandatory Sentences

New laws like the mandatory minimums, introduced since the 1980s, are the significant cause of the rocketing rate of incarceration. However, the increase in incarceration rate does not mean that there is an increase in crime at the same proportion. Incarceration rates went up because new laws listed a wider variety of crimes punishable. 

The negative side of mandatory minimums is that it eliminates a judge’s discretionary power of determining the seriousness of the offense and lowering the term of imprisonment if found necessary. It is the already set terms that determine one’s sentence. This law seems irrational and cruel when it comes to incarcerated children and mentally ill people. They are vulnerable groups, but their mental health and living circumstances are not topics for consideration in such contexts. To be precise, children caught up in this judicial system do not get appropriate rehabilitation. Although juveniles easily get rehabilitation, mandatory minimums do not allow the judiciary to consider better options.


A refutation made by Paul Larkin and Evan Bernick is that mandatory minimums” have merely shifted that discretion from judges to prosecutors”, for judges award the punishments that the law instructs whereas prosecutors have “unreviewable discretion over what charges to bring”. This means a prosecutor can decide whether to charge for mandatory minimums or to ‘engage in plea bargaining’ (Larkin and Bernick). However, this argument is feeble as it is clear to everyone that prosecutors are vulnerable to corruption, and hence, legal dysfunction is likely.

The above discussion throws light on the intensity of the issue ‘mass incarceration’ prevailing in the United States. Although many factors contribute to the issue, ‘war on drug’ is the most potential one. War on drug itself is a debatable topic as it involves color discrimination and human right violation to a great extent. Other causes of mass incarceration are mainly new policies like truth sentencing, private prison, and lack of proper rehabilitation program. Mass incarceration has put a big burden on society in various forms. Overcrowding prisons are difficult to manage in terms of money and manpower. Millions of children are growing up in the US with one or both parents incarcerated for nonviolent crimes.

An Undeniable fact

In the states and federal prisons, minority groups like the Black and Latinos constitute a major portion of the population. This is a clear case of the disproportionate impact of law enforcement. Compared to Whites, Latinos and blacks are more vulnerable to detention and incarceration. The government has to take serious steps to improve correctional facilities and rehabilitation programs. The system should revise the policies like the war on drugs. Besides, it should address nonviolent crimes and juvenile cases more intelligently.

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