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Running Head: REDUCING INCARCERATION 1

Reducing the Burden of Mass Incarceration in the United States

Pablo Garcia Beltran

Montgomery College
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Reducing the Burden of Mass Incarceration in the United States

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BJS) at yearend 2015, an estimated

6,741,400 persons were under the supervision of U.S. adult correctional systems, this amounted

to two percent of the population of the U.S. (Correctional, 2016, p. 1). Be that as it may, it was

not always the case that the U.S. had two percent of its population under the supervision of the

correctional system. Originally, the justice system was centered about corporal punishment. As a

result, there were few prisons that exceeded a maximum capacity of ten prisoners. However, in

the early nineteenth century, the American penal system commenced to drift away from a system

of corporal punishment to a system of incarceration and reform (Malsin, 2015). A natural

consequence of this gradual drift was the increase in prisons and the increase of the capacity of

prisons across the U.S. These facts laid the foundation for what came to be the prison-industrial

complex which sustained mass incarceration (Malsin, 2015). Moreover, mass incarceration was a

term used to describe the historically high rates of incarceration in the U.S. when compared to

other countries. Having considered the 6,741,400 persons under correctional supervision, of

which 1,526,800 were in state or federal prisons, the U.S. still had the highest incarceration rate

in the world in 2015 (Correctional, 2016; Prisoners in 2015, 2016). Furthermore, mass

incarceration was inefficient and problematic; for example, mass incarceration resulted in more

crime than it prevented. Nevertheless, mass incarceration could be overturned through a series of

policy changes, starting with the overhaul of tough on crime policy. Additionally, a society free

of mass incarceration would only stand to benefit as lower incarceration rates would translate

into safer communities in the long run and a lower tax burden on the taxpayer. In brief, mass

incarceration has been an issue in the United States for the past few decades. However, a
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thorough rework of tough on crime policy and implementation of new proportionality-over-

retribution policy will lead to a decrease in incarceration rates.

Intuitively, mass incarceration was thought to decrease crime. However, the data

suggested otherwise, mass incarceration did indeed contribute to higher crime rates. Among the

reasons for this strange datum was that, while in prison, prisoners learned new criminal skills and

talents from other inmates which ironically led prisoners to become more efficient criminals

(Neminski, 2014). Additionally, there was huge stigma attached to being an ex-convict. As a

result, persons once convicted of a crime are more likely to commit a crime again due to the

barrier and stigma a criminal record presents (Mungan, 2017). These two facts were reflected by

the U.S recidivism rates, which were seventy-six percent after five years (Recidivism, 2016). In

other words, approximately three out of every four criminals will be caught committing a crime

again within five years of their release from prison. In short, mass incarceration was self-

perpetuating and led to increases in crime.

In addition to causing more crime, mass incarceration broke families apart. Parental

figures were key features of a childs early and late development. The number of state and

federal inmates that reported having children under the age of eighteen had remained stable

around fifty and sixty percent, respectively, for the past decade (Parents, 2008). Moreover,

growing up in a single parent household with a parent in prison was linked to a higher chance of

committing a crime. This issue of broken families was exacerbated by the difficulties imposed by

prisons on familial communication and visitation. Moreover, there were many obstacles for

families to overcome regarding visitation. Among them was, the physical distance between

families and prisoners, and fitting ones schedule to the visitation schedule (Christian, 2015).
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Additionally, communication is made nearly impossible by outrageous fees on phone services

within prisons. Lastly, there is the long lasting psychological effects on the families of prisoners.

According to Christian (2015), the wives of prisoners were subject to feelings of guilt and stress

due to their attempts to fulfill the roles the incarcerated husbands once fulfilled. Similarly,

children were also impacted psychologically by the imprisonment of parents. Because of a

parents imprisonment, children face . . . behavioral problems at home and in school, difficulty

sleeping, mistrust, and fear of abandonment (Christian, 2015, p. 33). All things considered,

imprisonment was a great problem for families in the U.S.

Another problem presented by mass incarceration was that it was inherently unjust.

Katies story, as presented by Hyde (2015), illustrated one of the many aspects that made mass

incarceration unjust. Katies life was best described as a series of unfortunate events. She was put

under the custody of child protective services at the age of three, raped at the age of thirteen,

developed a drug habit at the age of fourteen, and was charged of a crime at the age of eighteen.

With scarce economic resources, Katie could not afford a defense attorney and ended up in an

adult jail (Hyde, 2015). Unfortunately, Katies story, that of someone who lived a precarious life

and ended up behind bars, was far too common. Additionally, the criminal justice system targeted

crimes that occurred in minority neighborhoods and among poor socioeconomic communities.

For example, crack cocaine, shown to be just as potent and dangerous as powder cocaine, was

more common among poor socioeconomic communities than powder cocaine, yet was sentenced

more harshly and more often (Palamar, Davies, Ompad, Cleland & Weitzman, 2015). In brief,

mass incarceration was unjust.


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Perhaps the most relatable problem to the public, mass incarceration placed a huge

economic burden on the taxpayer. The average taxpayer cost of housing an inmate in 2015 was

31,268 dollars (Santora, 2015). This number was considerably less than what was spent in other

nations, such as Britain and Australia, which spent approximately 30,000 Sterling pounds and

75,000 Australian dollars respectively. However, if compared the amount of money spent to the

recidivism rates Britain and Australia have it turns out Britain and Australia were making a better

investment than the U.S (Bagaric, 2014; Hyde, 2015). In addition, other problems arose when the

economic aspect of the prison system were analyzed. For instance, as a result of the prison

system being run as a business, some prisoners are treated as commodities. As a result of

regarding prisoners as commodities, their conditions became precarious rapidly. When these

aforementioned issues were put in the context of mass incarceration, the economic burden and

the incentive for prisons to be run as businesses became even greater.

As to how to solve this problem. Firstly, current policy must be changed to reflect the

current needs of the justice system, not those of the Nixon-Reagan tough on crime era. Three

strikes laws and minimum sentencing stand out the most. Three strikes laws dictated that on a

third criminal offence a person must be sent to jail. Not only does this undercut judicial

independence, but it also results in persons going to jail for no real reason and contributing to

mass incarceration (Karch & Cravens, 2014). For instance, California, one of the first states to

implement three strikes laws, had 39,623 prisoners in September 2016 incarcerated due to three

strike laws. Moreover, of those 39,623, more than 10,000 were in jail for crimes that were not

against other persons, in other words, non-violent crimes (Second, 2016). It follows logically that

removing three strikes laws, on non-violent crimes at the least, would reduce incarceration rates.
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Secondly, there was the issue of minimum sentencing. In and of itself, minimum sentencing laws

were not generally a bad idea, after all, countries that used civil law instead of common law had

minimum sentences for all crimes. However, in the absence of proportionality in sentencing,

minimum sentencing laws became a threat to a fair justice system (Nesmith, 2015). For instance,

virtually all prisoners in prison for a drug related offence were serving a minimum sentence that

was not proportional to the crime committed. Since approximately one out of every five state and

federal prisoners is in prison for a drug related offence, the effect of minimum sentences is very

vast (Prisoners in 2015, 2016). It follows that if minimum sentences were made more

proportional to their associated crimes, incarceration rates would be lower (Bagaric & Gopalan,

2016). In short, abolishing the remnants of tough on crime era policy and updating it to meet the

current requirements of the justice system would yield lower incarceration rates.

An equally important step towards decreasing incarceration rates would be decreasing the

power the prosecution held. The prosecution held a vast amount of power in the U.S justice

system; they controlled what cases were filed, what charges and enhancements to add, and plea

offerings (Alkon, 2015). Combined with prosecutors incentive to get convictions, it turns out the

prosecution was a great contributor towards incarceration rats in the U.S. According to Alkon

(2015), as long as prosecutors hold unfettered power, there is little incentive for them to not

charge people with crimes when they have the evidence to support the conviction (p. 201). To

reverse this situation, whereas the prosecution held vast power, how certain crimes are defined

must be changed. For example, crimes that can be charged as both misdemeanors and felonies

must be defined as one or the other but not both. Additionally, certain crimes that were felonies

should be reduced to misdemeanors. Similarly, varying sentences due to enhancements, a fact the
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prosecution used to pressure the defense, should be eliminated from the prosecutions toolbox

(Alkon, 2015). In short, the power the prosecution held must be restricted in order to lower

incarceration rates.

In addition, the justice system needed more resources to improve how fair the justice

system was. Take for instance public defenders, the only attainable option for those on the poor

end of the socioeconomic spectrum; public defenders were severely underfunded and

overworked (Van Brunt, 2015). Estimates by the Department of Justice presented troublesome

figures, such as seventy-three percent of public defenders taking on more than the maximum

recommended limit of cases. This resulted in 95% of criminal cases ending in plea bargaining

(Van Brunt, 2015, para. 10). It follows logically that the burden on public defenders must be

alleviated by providing more resources in the form of more public defenders and economic

resources. Additionally, the U.S. had a notoriously high reoffending rate, which is generally

linked with the lack of reform programs and conditions of prisons themselves. Therefore, there

must be greater investment in prisoner reform programs and the condition of prisons (Labutta,

2017). These suggestions should lead towards lower incarceration rates in the long run.

As to how effective these policy changes and reforms would be, Norway and Australia

had implemented some of these policies with remarkable results. For instance, Norway had a

much more proportional sentencing structure than the U.S (Labuta, 2017). Moreover, Norway

did not have three strikes laws and their minimum sentencing is much more fitting to the crime;

as a matter of fact, Norway had a maximum prison sentence of twenty-one years. Additionally,

Norway invested much more resources in their prisoners, around 93,000 dollars per prisoner, as

opposed to the 31,268 dollars the U.S. spends on its prisoners (Labuta, 2017). Nevertheless, if
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the U.S. spent the same amount per prisoner as Norway and had Norways low incarceration

rates, the U.S. would still save 45 billion dollars (Benko, 2015). As a result of these differences

between the Norwegian and American penal system, Norway has an incarceration rate that is

near a tenth that of America and a much lower recidivism rate, 75 out of 100,000 and twenty

percent respectively (Labuta, 2017). On the other hand, Australia, like the U.S, has a system of

common law. Sentencing in Australia was much more proportional, having more coherent

minimum sentences than the U.S and no three strikes laws. Furthermore, Australia spends

approximately 75,000 dollars per inmate as opposed to the 31,268 dollars the U.S. spends

(Bagaric, 2014). As a result, the Australian incarceration rate is 208 per 100,000, which was

more than double that of Norway but less than half that of the U.S (Prisoners in Australia, 2016).

In consideration, Norway and Australia had a few common points that support the proposed

solutions. Firstly, their systems were more proportional, secondly, their penal codes were more

strictly tabulated, and thirdly, they invested more in their prisoners. This led to the conclusion

that implementing the proposed solutions, which address the aforementioned common points in

some way shape or form, would indeed reduce incarceration rates in the U.S.

Luckily, the U.S. only stands to benefit from lower incarceration rates. The benefits

would be analogous to the problems in many regards; for example, a lower economic burden on

the American people, a reduction in crime, a more just justice system, and lesser amount of

unnecessarily disrupted families. Eliminating mass incarceration would result in a much lower

economic tax burden on the payers. As was noted previously, if the U.S. had an incarceration rate

as low as Norway and spent thrice as much as they currently do per prisoner, they would still

save about 45 billion dollars over what they spent (Benko, 2015). Additionally, those who would
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no longer be in jail due to mass incarceration would be able to join the workforce and generate

tax revenue for the U.S. Secondly, fixing mass incarceration would result in a decrease in crime

across the U.S. By avoiding criminals entry in jail, the acquisition of new and improved criminal

skills necessary for proficient crime is thwarted. Moreover, according to Mungan (2017), by

preventing a non-career criminal from obtaining a criminal record they were less likely to

commit a second crime. Thirdly, a justice system without mass incarceration would be a fairer

justice system. With more resources in the justice system persons would have access to better

legal defense that could prevent their entry in jail. Moreover, prisoners would have access to

better reform programs if the prison system received more resources. Additionally, the reduction

of incarceration rates would enable many families to remain as a family unit instead of separated

by the justice system. This would result in a greater number of parents living with their children

and lesser strain on single parents (Christian, 2015). From all perspectives, the ending of mass

incarceration only poses benefits for society.

Nevertheless, there were those who remained skeptical of changing the current system,

under the impression that mass incarceration works. They believed those who are in prison are

there for a reason; in other words, a prisoner committed a crime and therefore belongs in prison.

Additionally, those who argue in favor of mass incarceration supported this reasoning by

claiming that mass incarceration and the progressive lowering of crime rates were correlated.

However, this was not true, prisoners often found themselves in prison for crimes that did not

warrant incarceration. Such as drug related offences, which were very harshly sentenced in the

U.S (Bagaric, 2014). Furthermore, it was very hard to link mass incarceration with the reduction

in crime (King, Mauer & Young, 2005). Moreover, the research seems to support the opposite
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conclusion. According to King, Mauer, and Young (2005) Increasing incarceration while

ignoring more effective approaches will impose a heavy burden upon courts, corrections and

communities, while providing a marginal impact on crime (p. 8). As a matter of fact, there was a

stronger link between the decrease in the consumption of leaded gasoline and the decrease in

crime rates than there is between mass incarceration and the decrease in crime rates (Knapp,

2013). All things considered, there is no solid link between mass incarceration and a lowering in

crime rates.

Mass incarceration has remained an issue in the United States for quite some time.

However, through comprehensive policy reform, lower incarceration rates can be achieved.

Policy reform ranging from pouring more resources into the prison system, decreasing the power

of the prosecution, and getting rid of tough on crime era policy. This will bring about the end of

mass incarceration which will results in a slew of benefits. Among these benefits are lower crime

rates, a more affordable prison system, a fairer justice system, and more unified families.

However, if nothing were done about mass incarceration, the problems would continue in their

current trend of becoming more severe by the year.


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