The United States of America currently houses the largest prison population within the world, by far, with 2.3 million people behind bars (Wagner), and over 200,000 of them serving life sentences (Hayden). Before the 1970’s, there were only very modest increases and decreases in the countries prison population (Justice Policy Institute). Since the 70’s, the prison population has increased nearly 8-fold, even as crime rates have dramatically dropped in recent decades. (Justice Policy Institute). The western nation with the closest incarceration rate to the U.S. at 666 per 100,000 is the UK with a rate of 425 per 100,000 (Statista). The mass incarceration of the nation can be attributed to the failed War on Drugs that began in 1972, and the high recidivism rates of today. The prison system has broken the family dynamic and indoctrinates youths into the prison cycle.
Origins of Mass Incarceration
A nearly 30-year downward trend in crime rates was snapped, as the 1960s saw an explosion in crime rates (Pinker). Homicide, for example, saw its rate increase from around 5 to nearly 10 per 100,000 people by the end of the decade (Pinker). During the same decade, drug usage and addiction also skyrocket as drugs like LSD, marijuana, and heroin became popularized by the youth and war vets (Palm Partners Recovery Center). In response to this, on July 17th, 1971, Richard Nixon gave a speech to Congress deeming drug abuse as “public enemy number one” as it “assumed the dimensions of a national emergency” (Vulliamy). He officially declared a war on drugs, asked Congress for an initial $84 million for funding and signed this metaphorical war into legislation on January 28th, 1972 (Vulliamy). Under his administration, drug enforcement agencies were established and conducted many drug raids and arrests, with about 6,000 in the first 18 months (Whitford and Yates). Until Reagan took office in 1981, the prison population only saw a relatively minor increase during this decade of about 120,000 (Justice Policy Institute).
Reagan, who took office in 1981, reinvigorated the War on Drugs when he gave a speech on the white house garden in June 1982, saying, “We’re taking down the surrender flag that has flown over so many drug efforts; we’re running up a battle flag. We can fight the drug problem, and we can win. And that is exactly what we intend to do,” (Tony).In response to increased drug trafficking and the overdose of Boston Celtics Len Bias, Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which established mandatory minimum penalties for drug trafficking offenses (United States Sentencing Commission). These sentences were usually 5 or 10 years long, with the longer sentences being given to major drug kingpins, and those with large amounts of the drugs (United States Sentencing Commission). The type of drug also played a role through the “100-to-1 ratio, where possessing at least 5 grams of crack cocaine netted the same mandatory 5-year sentence as 500 grams of powder cocaine (United States Sentencing Commission). In 1988, the Omnibus Anti-Abuse Act was passed, which criminalized drug addiction by instituting a 5-year mandatory minimum sentence for drug possession under the same “100-to-1” rule (United States Sentencing Commission). During this decade, the prison population skyrocketed as legislation to criminalize drug trafficking and addiction through expanded mandatory minimums, and longer jail sentences in general (Justice Policy Institute). The incarcerated population rose 424,000 during this decade (Justice Policy Institute).
In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act which called for $30 billion dollars in funding and provided for 100,000 new police officers (Lussenhop). The bill also created 60 new offenses eligible for the death penalty (United States Department of Justice) and attempted to incentivize states to impose tougher sentencing laws with additional federal funding (Lussenhop). One of the more poignant of the component introduced in this bill is the “Three Strikes” statute which allows states to impose mandatory life sentences for convicted felons who had two prior convictions, with at least one being a serious felony (Findlaw). States like California took advantage of the opportunity and enacted mandatory life sentences for their repeat offenders (Findlaw). By the end of this decade, the prison population increased by 532,448 (Justice Policy Institute).
Freedom and reintegration into society cannot truly be obtained for most prisoners as within 3 years of their release, 67.8% of them are rearrested, with 56.7% of the rearrests occurring by the end of the first year after their release (National Institute Of Justice). In most states, a conviction signals the end of a person’s professional life as it remains a permanent black mark on their record. If a person wants to get a job or a place to live, a background check is almost always run, and when it comes back with a felony, the applicant is disqualified. This system causes contributes to the high recidivism rates as the lack of legal jobs and opportunity available to ex-cons drive them right back to the drugs and crimes that put them in jail in the first place. Because of the background check system, a crime of any caliber can effectively end someone’s life by crushing their chances to reintegrate into society, dooming them to a lifetime of the never-ending prison cycle.
Effects On The Children
The harsh criminalization of drug abuse, the establishment, and expansion of mandatory minimums, and longer sentences have created the incarceration issue in our nation (Citation). Policies like the “100-to-1” rule disproportionately affected black communities as 5 grams of crack cocaine, which was concentrated in the black community, carried the same mandatory minimum of 5 years as 500 grams of powder cocaine, which was more common in white communities (Galea). Despite making up only 13% of the population, black people make up 40% of the prison population (Galea). The effects of mass incarceration extend beyond the individual as 2.3 million people behind bars results in 2.7 million children with at least one incarcerated parent (Galea). Parents have the greatest impact on a child’s life as they can provide structure, security, supervision, and knowledge. The absence of a parent poses detrimental impacts on a child’s development and the prospects of their future. 45% of children with incarcerated parents are black, which is drastically higher than the 28% and the 21% for whites and Hispanics, respectively (Galea).
Incarceration puts an economic burden on the family, as more than half of imprisoned parents were the primary breadwinners financially supporting the family (Galea). In any family, when a source of income is removed, it puts intense pressure on the family. The remaining parent often has to take on more jobs or work longer hours to fill the financial hole that incarceration left behind. Even once the parent is released, the economic burden does not subside as the parent now faces a limited earning potential resulting from the conviction on their record. As a result, of the financial burden, the children receive less supervision and attention, as the focus is shifted away from the well-being of the child to finance.
Studies have shown that parental incarceration is more traumatic and damaging to a student’s education, health, and social relationships than the death of a parent or divorce (Sparks). According to a study conducted by Central Connecticut State University, children of the incarcerated are about 3 times as likely as other children to become incarcerated themselves (Sparks). According to a 2013 report from the American Bar Association, only 1%-2% of students with incarcerated mothers and 13%-25% of students with incarcerated fathers graduate from college (Sparks). In addition to this, schools with significant proportion of students with incarcerated parents is closely related to lower GPA’s and college graduation rates for all students, even the ones without incarcerated parents (Sparks).The children who continue to contact their incarcerated parent exhibit fewer disruptive behaviors, and lowers the recidivism rates of the parents (Sparks). Unfortunately, close contact between the incarcerated parents and their children is not always possible. Depending on the type of prison, the parent could live hundreds of miles away from their child, and the parent could be transferred to any prison without the immediate notification of the family (Prison Fellowship). Due to the economic hardship already facing the family, the long distance usually makes personal contact nearly impossible. Because of this, letters represent the most common form of communication between prisoners and their children, with only 42% of them having personal visits since their admission (Prison Fellowship). Even the personal visits are often not close enough, as many prisons require the visitors to be separated by thick glass windows, requiring them to communicate through telephones (Prison Fellowship).
Because of the war on drugs and mass incarceration that accompanied it, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world: It has only 5% of the world’s population, but ¼ of its prisoners (The Economist). 2.3 million people sit in its overcrowded jail cells serving long sentences, millions of families are broken, and the recidivism rate stands at 67.8% (National Institute Of Justice). Despite arresting at least 10 million people each year since 1990 (Statista), the US still faces rampant drug abuse and one of the highest homicide rates out of the western nations (Kiersz and LoGiurato). It is clear that the United States justice and prison systems are in desperate need of reformation,
A major reformation that the prison system needs is the switch from a system based on harsh punishment to one based on rehabilitation. Within the United States, prisons dehumanize their inmates by locking them in cages, and only attending to their basic needs. According to Bureau of Justice statistics, 80,000 people (men, women, and children) sit in solitary confinement, which has been proven to have negative psychological impacts on those affected, like PTSD and increased risk of suicide (American Friends Service Committee). People who are subjected to long periods in solitary confinement often leave with their mental health compromised (American Friends Service Committee). Being a prisoner in the United States leaves little time for personal reflection and rehabilitation and puts more focus on just being able to survive, contributing to the high recidivism and incarceration rate in the country. Nordic countries, like Sweden, and Norway place greater focus on rehabilitating their inmates rather than punishing them (Aleem). The director of Sweden’s prison and probation service, Nils Öberg, told the Guardian, “our role is not to punish. The punishment is in the prison sentence. They have been deprived of their freedom. The punishment is that they are with us.” Within Sweden, each prisoner has an officer that monitors them and ensures their progress on the road to reintegration into society (Aleem). In this regard, the officers in Sweden perform both rehabilitative and security roles (Aleem). After adopting the rehabilitative philosophy for the prison system, the prison population in Sweden dropped by 21% and the recidivism rate sits at nearly 40% (Aleem). In comparison to the success of the rehabilitative model in reducing incarceration and recidivism, the putative model that the U.S. follows appears antiquated and inhumane.
Even after ex-criminals leave prison, they still receive punishment through the limitation of their ability to find honest work, contributing to the high recidivism. Reformation of the criminal background check system is the next step in reducing incarceration and recidivism. About 9/10 employers check databases for criminal records when hiring for positions (Appelbaum). Having a conviction history destroys a person’s ability to find honest work and become a “productive member of society”. Men with criminal records account for 34% of all nonworking men between the ages of 25 and 54 (Aleem). The nation should take Hawaii’s revamped background check system as an example. In 1998, Hawaii passed the first “fair chance” law (Aleem). This law prohibits private employers from asking about criminal history until after making a job offer, and the offer can only then be revoked if the conviction is relevant to the job (Aleem). This law allows ex-convicts the chance to prove their qualifications for job positions and prove their rehabilitation and new mentality since receiving the conviction. It allows ex-convicts an honest chance at obtaining employment that they otherwise would not have. Since implementing this law, Hawaii has seen its recidivism rate decrease from 63.3% in 1999 to 47.1% in 2012 (Hawaii Free Press).
In comparison to other countries, the United States is a police state, what with its high incarceration rates of its citizens for violent and nonviolent offenses. For those that make it out of jail, the punishment does not end and contributes to their recidivism. The effects on the youths of the nation are far-reaching and heavily contribute to their indoctrination into the prison system. Reformation of the judicial and prison system is critical for the prosperity of the society and its peoples.
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Appelbaum, Binyamin. Out of Trouble, but Criminal Records Keep Men Out of Work. 28 February 2015. 19 March 2018.
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United States Department of Justice. The Federal Death Penalty Act Of 1994. n.d. 17 March 2018.
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