Five things everyone should know about US incarceration

The United States incarcerates more people per capita than any other nation in the world.

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The US has the highest incarceration rate not because it has higher crime rates, but because it imprisons more types of criminal offenders, including non-violent and drug offenders , and keeps them in prison longer [Getty Images]

In the next few weeks, the US Congress will likely pass gun control legislation. President Obama will sign it into law and both Democrats and Republicans will walk away feeling that they did something to stem the tide of gun violence. That something likely will be to increase the criminal penalties for transferring, buying and using a gun illegally. 

It will not be the first time that Congress has skirted the real issue in favour of symbolic measures that “look tough” and make legislators look good by putting more people in prison for longer. 

Since the late 1980s, the US federal and state governments have sold imprisonment as the solution to myriad problems that have their roots in much more complex social and economic conditions. 

The criminalisation tendency is politically expedient. This “prisons-first” political culture has one big downside: it has created mass incarceration. 

Here are five things that everyone should know about mass incarceration in the United States. 

1. The US incarcerates more people per capita than any other nation in the world: Approximately 1 in 100 adults or more than 2.2 million people are behind bars in the US, according to the Pew Center on the States. In addition, another 4.6 million (or a total of almost 7 million) people live under some form of correctional supervision. 

Although the US is widely recognised as a “land of liberty”, it could also be described as a nation of prisons. It incarcerates more people per capita than any other nation. Its imprisonment rate (per capita) is almost 50 percent higher than Russia’s and 320 percent higher than China’s. 

Within the western hemisphere, the US incarcerates five times as many people per capita as Canada and almost 2.5 times as many as Mexico. 

2. Mass incarceration is not a result of higher crime rates: The US has the highest incarceration rate in the world not because it has higher crime rates, but because it imprisons more types of criminal offenders, including non-violent and drug offenders, and keeps them in prison longer. 

With the exception of homicide, US crime rates are comparable to other European countries with much lower incarceration rates. 

High incarceration rates are the result of “truth in sentencing”, “mandatory minimum” and “three strikes” laws which have limited judicial discretion in sentencing and parole release. As a result, sentences are now mainly determined by what the prosecutor decides to charge. And prosecutors routinely over-charge defendants in order to encourage plea agreements. 

An egregious, but not unusual, recent example illustrates this point. In 2012, a Florida woman, who fired a “warning shot” in the direction of her physically abusive ex-husband (who was not hit by the bullet), was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. 

The judge, as a result of mandatory sentencing legislation, was given no discretion in her sentencing. He sentenced her to 20 years in prison.

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3. Mass incarceration disproportionately impacts US racial minorities: Mass incarceration has had a devastating effect on blacks and Hispanics in the US. African Americans are six times more likely to be incarcerated than a white person and non-white Latinos are almost three times more likely to be incarcerated, according to the Pew Center on the States. 

Incarceration hits hardest at young black and Latino men without high school education. An astounding 11 percent of black men, aged between 20 and 34, are behind bars. 

Much of the racial disparity is a result of the US’ war on drugs – started by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. By 1988, blacks were arrested on drug charges at five times the rate of whites. 

By 1996, the rate of drug admissions to state prison for black men was 13 times greater than the rate for white men. This is despite the fact that African Americans use drugs at roughly the same rate as white Americans. 

4. Mass incarceration is expensive: Imprisoning people is not cheap. The average cost of housing an inmate is approximately $20,000 to $30,000 per year. This price tag comes at the direct expense of public money that could be spent on public education, medical care and public assistance. And it is one reason why so many states face fiscal crises today. 

To put this in perspective, the state of California spends 2.5 times more money housing and feeding its inmates than it does educating students. California is not alone: five states “spend more on corrections than higher education”, a 2008 Pew Center study revealed. 

5. Mass incarceration disguises the US’ real unemployment rate and exacerbates inequality: The current unemployment rate in the US is high. And if we factored in all the people who are not looking for work because they are behind bars, it would be higher – especially among young black Americans and people without a high school diploma. 

A recent research by Becky Petit reveals: 

“Employment-population rates adjusted to include inmates suggest that only 26 percent of young black, male dropouts were employed in 2008, while over 37 percent were in prison or jail. Over half of the joblessness of young, black, and male dropouts is linked to incarceration.” 

Incarceration also negatively impacts former prisoner’s ability to earn a decent living. Several studies suggest that there are at least six million “ex-prisoners” living within society and when they look for a job, they are 50 percent less likely to be hired than job seekers without a criminal record. 

Former prisoners are paid less than those who have not been to prison. In addition, incarceration of a parent reduces a child’s prospects for economic mobility. 

Heather Schoenfeld is an assistant professor of sociology at Ohio State University. Her most recent article on mass incarceration will appear next month in the American Journal of Sociology. She is currently writing a book tentatively titled Growing Prisons: Race, Politics and the Capacity to Punish in Florida.