The United States of America likes to call itself the land of the free, yet it jails more of its own people than any other nation on earth. The U.S. incarceration rate is 716 adults per 100,000 of the population, by far the highest in the world. In comparison, Russia’s incarceration rate is 484 while Iran’s is 284. The median among all nations is 125.
The United States also has the largest prison population in absolute terms. Chinas has four times the population of America, yet has about 1.6 million people in prison while America imprisons more than 2.4 million people. The US is 5 percent of the world’s population, yet it has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.
America’s prison population has not always been at such an unsustainable level. The US prison population has increased 500 percent over the past forty years, even though the population has only increased by about 33 percent.
America also has over four million people who are not in prison but remain under correctional supervision. This means that they are under parole or on probation. In total, the number of Americans in the correctional system exceeds six million, more people than there were in the Stalin’s gulags.
Worse, mass incarceration disproportionately affects racial minorities. According to Michelle Alexander, the United States jails a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did during its Apartheid. Additionally, there are now more African American males under correctional supervision than were enslaved in 1850. Although African Americans and Hispanics represent 30 percent of the population, they represent 60 percent of those in prison.
This is not because minorities commit more crimes. In fact, whites commit the majority of crimes in this country. Whites commit 60 percent of all violent crimes, yet represent only 23 percent of those in prison for violent crime. They comprise 74 percent of the nation’s drug users, yet make up only 10 percent of those in prison for drug possession. In contrast, African Americans represent 14 percent of drug users, yet they are 74 percent of those incarcerated for drug possession.
Minorities also receive more punitive sentences than whites for the commission of identical or lesser crimes. The U.S. Sentencing Commission found that African Americans receive sentences that are on average 10 percent longer than those whites receive for the same crimes. According to the Sentencing Project, African Americans now serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (57.2 months) as whites do for a violent offense (58.8 months).
This large prison population has multiple negative effects on prisoners as well as society. Prison overcrowding leads to a greater prevalence of violence, disease, and abuse. Furthermore, prisoners lose countless employment and education opportunities due to their criminal record. Most tragically, incarceration of a parent reduces a child’s prospects for economic mobility. In many states, prisoners also lose the right to vote. Mass incarceration effectively creates a permanent disenfranchised underclass that is largely made up of minorities.
A large prison population is also expensive. According to the Bureau of Justice, it costs approximately $30,000 to house one prisoner for one year. This is higher than the average yearly tuition for in-state public college. In total, the United States spends about $74 billion on incarceration annually.
Furthermore, prison does not reduce crime. European countries have far less prisoners but have crime rates that are similar to or greater than those in the US.
The reason for America’s high prison population is not because of a more criminally inclined population. Crime is at a historic low, yet the prison population is at an historic high. “Get tough on crime” policies are the culprit
The U.S. must end misguided policies that result in mass incarceration. The first is the War on Drugs. The rise in our nation’s prison population is directly correlated with the declaration and escalation of the Drug War. Indeed, 55 percent of federal inmates are incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses, and the U.S. imprisons more people for drug crimes than Western Europe does for all crimes, even though Western Europe has a larger population.
Another major issue is mandatory sentencing. Mandatory sentences give a minimum sentence for certain crimes, regardless of the circumstances surrounding their commission. This prevents judges from using discretion, and sometimes results in sentences that are just plain ridiculous. For example, a woman in Florida was sentenced to 20 years for firing a warning shot at her abusive husband due to Florida’s mandatory sentencing law about crimes involving firearms.
The most damaging policy is commonly referred to as the Three Strikes Law. This law sentences those who are convicted of three felonies to 25 years to life in prison. This has resulted in some absurd sentences. For example, Kevin Weber was sentenced to 25 years to life for stealing cookies. Timothy Tyler received a life sentence for the possession of 13 sheets of LSD. These are not isolated incidents either; 3,600 of California’s 8,000 third-strikers have committed crimes that were neither serious nor violent.
Moreover, three-strikes laws are unnecessary since judges already take previous crimes into account when handing down sentences.
Some people are violent monsters who should be locked away, but these are not the majority of those who are sent to prison. The Sentencing Project found that 72 percent of Federal prisoners are non-violent offenders with no history of violence.
The U.S. should immediately begin using alternatives to prison, especially with non-violent and low-level criminals. These alternatives include rehabilitation, probation, and community service. These alternatives are far less costly and are proven to be effective. Moreover, mandatory sentences should only be used for serious crimes like murder, rape and child molestation, if they are used at all.
Recently, I watched a video where a group of British comedians made fun of America’s prison policy. I would have laughed along if this weren’t happening in my country. In the words of Jimmy Carr, “I’d like to make a joke about this, but something must be done!”