Why Ending Mass Incarceration Will Be So Hard

Mass incarceration is a national tragedy in the United States. It’s also a national shame.

Everyone knows that prison is bad. You lose your freedom, much of your privacy, contact with loved ones, the ability to support yourself, and many of the things that make life worthwhile. Various forms of abuse and violence are far too frequent.

And when you get out, your time in prison casts a long shadow over the rest of your life. Being labelled a criminal can drastically limit your future choices in employment, housing and personal relationships.

That’s why it’s shocking that, and this can’t be stated enough, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

The United States imprisons about 716 per 100,000 people. The next closest country is Cuba, which imprisons around 500 per 100,000 of its population. And some states have rates much higher. Arizona, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia and Oklahoma all have incarceration rates over 1,000 per 100,000 people, which means that over 1 percent of the population is behind bars.

And this is the number of people incarcerated at any given time; it does not count how many people will be incarcerated in their lifetimes.

It’s almost impossible to believe that we somehow need to imprison a substantially larger portion of our population compared to the rest of the world. There are much less punitive, cheaper and all around better ways of dealing with crime than locking millions of people up behind bars.

As Michelle Alexander argues persuasively in The New Jim Crow, the entire system not only disproportionately harms and afflicts black communities, but it appears to be partially the result of various attempts to specifically target and control these communities.

Thankfully, this issue has seemed to capture the attention of many voters during this election cycle, particularly on the Democratic side. It has been a major issue for many when deciding between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, and both candidates have made forceful criticisms of our current system of incarceration.

Unfortunately, as is a problem in much of our politics, too much of the discussion surrounding mass incarceration has centered on presidential politics. However, whoever the next president is, they will have relatively little power to fight mass incarceration. The chart below from the Prison Policy Initiative shows why:

Prison Reform Crime

The yellow slice of the pie shows the portion of people who are locked up in federal prisons. It is only around 10 percent of the entire population. While a future president could and should work to reduce this population, they will not be able get at that heart of the problem.

I’ve previously discussed some of the problems with local jails, which are often sites of gross injustice. But state prisons and state criminal law are the biggest contributors by far to the problem of mass incarceration. The burden of reforming these institutions falls on governors and state legislatures, not the federal government.

And this is why the problem will be very difficult to address. While leadership from a president on these issues can matter and is deeply important, ultimately its up to the states to decide to roll back their extreme overreach in the pursuit of justice.

But part of the problem is that when crime rates go up, there’s a massive push for politicians to respond by locking more people up. And in fact, many scholars point to the panic caused by the (very real) crime wave the preceded the 1990s as a major contributor to the subsequent mass incarceration:

When crime rates drop, as they have dramatically in recent decades, there’s little incentive for the public to reexamine the choices made in the height of panic. That’s why we need, and may indeed have, a widespread movement to reduce our prison population.

But there will be hurdles and setbacks along the way. Even a single crime committed by one released inmate out of a thousand could lead to a major backlash against reforms. A minor uptick in crime may cause many to worry that we’ve acted prematurely.

And many entrenched laws, like mandatory minimums, will have to be picked apart and revised. This will be a tumultuous and contentious process.

All this means that we will need a sustained and committed coalition of advocates fighting to undo the injustice of an overzealous system of incarceration.

Photo Credit: Kirt Edblom


Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus1 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill1 years ago

California has released a lot of convicted felons by to the streets, now crime has skyrocketed!

Elaine W.
Past Member 1 years ago

There is a whole economic system built around this "slave prisoners" care and feeding for profit including police, courts, lawyers. No easy solutions or change in attitude imminent.

Marie W.
Marie W1 years ago

Making money- corporations will fight to keep it.

Danuta Watola
Danuta W1 years ago

Thanks for the share.

Ullrich Mueller
Ullrich Mueller1 years ago

It is big business in the first place. There is too much money in it for it to end quickly. But also it also has an intimidating function directed at all those who believe that this social system is far from perfect and needs a severe overhaul (if that is still possible).

FOTEINI h1 years ago

sign petitions about incarceration:
and many more...

Bill Eagle
Bill Eagle1 years ago

If you look at the chart, you will see that over half of the people in local jails are not convicted, but are awaiting trial. Poor people can not afford either bail or decent legal representation. They are often convicted or offered a "deal" even when they are innocent. Our American legal system sucks, it sucks big time.

Carole R.
Carole R1 years ago

Thanks for posting.

Chad Anderson
Chad Anderson1 years ago

There is so much human need to be addressed and so many good jobs to be created addressing them. A direct approach to solving problems sure beats locking up half of the world's prisoners and profiting from it.