Mass Incarceration In the US: What You Need to Know
Published April 22, 2022
The US only has about4.2% of the world’s population. But it holds more than20% of the world’s prison population. Meaning, 1 in 5 prisoners worldwide is being held in the US. With this, it’s undeniable that the country is facing a mass incarceration crisis of devastating proportions.
Though many people are more inclined to believe otherwise, mass incarceration in the US is very real. And while you’re reading this, it’s tearing families apart and wreaking havoc on society.
But just how bad is the mass incarceration problem in the US? And why does the US have one of the highest incarceration rates globally?
To answer that, let’s look at some facts about mass incarceration in the US.
To get a better picture of the US mass incarceration crisis, here are somestatistics you need to know:
- As of 2022, the country’s prison systems hold a combined total of about 1.8 million people.
- About 573 people out of 100,000 residents are incarcerated in the US.
- About 58% of all prisoners are held in state prisons, 30% are in local jails, 11% are in federal prisons and jails, and the rest are in other types of detention facilities.
- Up to 81% of those kept in local jails are not yet convicted.
- Only 45% of all prisoners are convicted or charged with violent crimes.
- 15% of all prisoners are either convicted or are facing drug charges.
- At least 1 in 4 people who got out of jail gets arrestedagain after only a year.
- An average of 600,000 people go to prison in a single year.
- African-American residents make up the majority of the US prison population. (Bureau of Jail Statistics)
- About 36,000 prisoners are in Youth Detention Centers, while 32,000 are in Immigration Detention Centers.
What Causes Mass Incarceration in the US?
No one factor directly led to the US having the highest incarceration rate per capita in the world. Rather, it’s caused by a myriad of factors such as:
1. Long prison sentences, even for minor crimes.
Criminal laws may vary per state, but in general, prison sentences for misdemeanor charges generally range anywhere from 6 months to a year. In some states, this can even extend up to 18 months.
You can imagine how many misdemeanor offenses are being committed every single day. If all the offenders have to spend time in jail for up to a year, then it’s not a surprise that we have over a million people behind bars.
2. Numerous restrictions after being set free.
Many people think that being incarcerated is hard. But what many people don’t know is that an offender’s struggle does not end when they get out of jail. Quite the opposite, actually.
Some people have to wear ankle bracelets, while others have to check in with their parole officers constantly. All these restrictions often limit one’s employment and other opportunities. And when they violate even just a single provision, they could find themselves back behind bars serving an even longer sentence.
3. The “War on Drugs”
The government’s war on drugs is one of the main contributing factors in the US’ skyrocketing incarceration rate. Misguided drug laws and harsher punishments for drug-related offenses have sent more men behind bars than other types of crimes.
For instance, simple possession of illegal substances can lead to a year in prison. But if you’re caught a second time, you could be facing a felony charge with a prison sentence anywhere from a year to five years.
4. Institutional racism
Though much has changed in recent years, it’s undeniable that institutional racism is still prevalent in the country.
According to statistics, minorities are more likely to be stopped and frisked than white people. AnNYPD data shows that in 2020 alone, 56% of those subjected to stop-and-frisk were Blacks, and 30% were Hispanics.
A report from the Human Rights Watch also claims that the police department admits to having an increased police presence in poor black neighborhoods because they are considered “higher crime” areas.
5. Exorbitant bail amounts
Bail amounts in the US are set based on factors like the type of crime committed and the defendant’s flight risk. Unfortunately, in most cases, the court won’t take their ability to pay into account.
According to estimates, the average bail amount for felonies is $10,000. In some cases, it can even go up to $40,000. At the same time, bail for misdemeanors can range anywhere from $250 to $1,500. For rich people, this may not even dent their bank accounts. But if you’re living from paycheck to paycheck, you probably don’t have a thousand dollars lying around. And, as they say, if you can’t afford bail, you’ll go to jail.
6. Lack of mental health facilities
As of 2020, there are only a little over 12,000 health care facilities in the entire country. With millions of people suffering from mental health issues, this isn’t enough – not by a long shot. It’s no wonder then that, according to studies, about 56% of state prisoners and 45% of federal prisoners have mental health problems. With this, it’s safe to say that our jails and prisons have become the country’s de facto mental health care provider.
7. Increase in Life Sentences
One of the biggest contributors to the mass incarceration crisis in the US is the increasing number of people who are given life sentences.
As of 2016, about 13.9% of the US prison population or one in every seven inmates are serving life or virtual life sentences. This translates to 206,268 inmates, about 12,000 of which were sentenced for crimes committed while they were minors.
Consequences of Mass Incarceration
The mass incarceration problem in the US does not just affect the people behind bars. It has far-reaching consequences that reverberate throughout all levels of society, especially in poor communities. These include:
1. Increased Social Spending
With so many people behind bars, the government naturally has to pay for their meals, clothing, and other basic necessities. They also have to hire more jail staff and build more facilities to house them. And where does the money to fund all these come from? People’s taxes, of course.
In 2019 alone, state governments have spent roughly 56.6 billion dollars on corrections. Imagine if that amount of money was spent on mental health care or social welfare instead. We probably won’t have that many people behind bars now.
2. Increased Recidivism
Aside from having one of the largest prison populations in the world, the US also has the dubious honor of having the highest recidivism rate.
As per statistics, about 45% of released prisoners are rearrested within a year while 76.6% are arrested again within five years. This is because former inmates receive little to no support after going out of prison. Many facilities also don’t have programs that prepare inmates for reintegration back into society. That, coupled with the social stigma of being an ex-convict makes it hard for former inmates to secure a job or hold on to one for a long time. As a result, many of them are forced to return to a life of crime.
3. More Children Grow Up Without Parents
According to a 2016 survey, roughly 47% of state prisoners and 58% of federal prisoners were parents of at least one minor child. Overall, more than 5 million children have experienced having a parent in prison. This is one of the saddest consequences of mass incarceration. Aside from families being torn apart, these children are also robbed of the opportunity to grow up under the care of their parents.
Research also shows that children who grew up with a parent or both parents in prison are more likely to develop behavioral problems. They are also more likely to end up in prison themselves, repeating the seemingly endless cycle of absentee parents and generational trauma.
4. Increased Homelessness Rate
The National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) estimates that former prisoners are ten times more likely to become homeless.
Aside from limited employment opportunities, many government programs also exclude former convicts. In some states, people with felony convictions, especially drug-related ones, are banned from receiving food stamps and cash assistance.
Many landlords also refuse to rent their units to a former prisoners. In addition, there are federal and state laws that ban people who are convicted of certain crimes from receiving housing vouchers or housing assistance.
With all these odds piled against them, it’s inevitable that a former felon will eventually end up on the streets.
Will Mass Incarceration Continue in the US?
Though the country’s prison population has fallen in recent years, the US continues to have one of the highest incarceration rates around the world. Though, if the recent statistics continue its trajectory, we might have a fighting chance at stopping the country’s mass incarceration crisis. But until then, we can only hope.
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About The Author
Judy Ponio is a professional writer and SEO specialist. She works hard to ensure her work uses accurate facts by cross checking reputable sources. She is the lead author for several prominent websites covering a variety of topics including law, health, nutrition, and more.