By Tracy Li and Dirong Wen · On April 19, 2016

What do authoritarian countries such as Iran, China, and Russia have in common? They all have lower incarceration rates than the United States — a country built on the foundation of peace, liberty, and justice. With just 5% of the global population, the United States has managed to imprison an astounding 25% of the world’s prisoners. 2.3 million people are currently locked up in a dysfunctional prison state, while incarceration rates have quintupled since the 1980s (The Century Foundation).

America was not always heavy on crime. However, in the 1960s crime rates began to rise concurrently as public unrest was stirred by the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War. As President Nixon began the War on Drugs in 1971, zero tolerance policies were enacted, which were later exacerbated by President Reagan’s stance on punishing nonviolent drug offenses. Courts sentenced under mandatory minimums; police protection turned into police surveillance. During his presidential bid in 1992, President Clinton initially took a more merciful stance by encouraging treatment over incarceration. After taking office, he disappointingly reverted to the drug war strategies of his Republican predecessors, most notoriously rejecting a recommendation by the Sentencing Commission to eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences, which has disproportionately punished the African-American population (Drug Policy Alliance). At the current rates of incarceration, one-third of all African American men will be in prison at some time in their lifetimes — certainly not their American Dream.

A Case Study on Social Costs in Illinois

In 2009, more than $1 billion of tax revenue was spent on state prisons, an average cost of almost $25,000 per inmate (John Howard Association of Illinois). Chicago may be a city with disproportionately high violence per capita, but more than 70% of all criminal cases in the Chicago area involve a class D felony drug possession charge, the lowest-level felony charge. Those who do go to prison find little freedom upon release, and often experience recidivism for transgressing technical requirements such as missing appointments with a parole officer, failing to maintain employment, or failing a drug test. The suspension of early release programs has further aggravated Illinois’ social nightmare. In Illinois, young black men are more likely to go to prison than to college, and as of 2001, there were 20,000 less black men in undergraduate programs than there were in state prison systems (Alexander, The New Jim Crow).

Proponents of total incarceration point to the fact that crime rates have fallen since the 1990s, but can a causal relationship be established? Jed Rakoff, an esteemed federal judge in New York, remarked that “the price we pay for acting on this hunch is enormous,” at roughly $80 billion a year to run the prison state. The pyramid of institutions is congested, ineffective, appallingly expensive, and over one million inmates are non-violent offenders who pose relatively minimal threat to public safety. Research has demonstrated that when low-level non-violent offenders are incarcerated instead of given supervised release, they are more likely to commit new crimes once they are released from prison. Even as jobs are being created, the young male population with felony histories are not able to rejoin the labour force. When a certain number of people in a given neighborhood get sucked into the criminal justice system à la Chicago, many social costs take hold: families break apart, child poverty surges, and level of higher education regresses. In this respect, far from keeping American citizens safe, mass incarceration may end up stimulating precisely the very evil that it was supposedly intended to alleviate. Put mildly, “Prison has become the new poverty trap,” per Harvard sociologist Bruce Western.

Conflicting Interests in the Criminal Justice System

Beyond spending millions of taxpayer dollars on building these concrete jungles of desolation, America finds itself spending $4 billion in addition to support healthcare for an aging prison population. Currently, more than 10% of the inmates are serving life sentences, with half of them serving for non-violent offenses. A peculiar concept of life sentences is that most people age out of criminal activity. Five to ten years is the typical duration that adults commit the eight serious crimes closely tracked by the F.B.I., which include murder, rape, and robbery (The New York Times). It would appeal to logic that the right approach is to limit mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent crimes, but this proposal has yet to gain traction in the gridlock of Congress.

The government has looked to privatization to deal with mounting public expenditures. The population in private federal prisons more than doubled between 2000 and 2010, and now the industry manages a network of correctional facilities across the nation (Justice Policy Institute). For-profit prisons such as Corrections Corporation of America seek no interest in reforming the penitentiary. Rather, they have spent a disappointing amount on political contributions and lobbying to preserve the status quo.

Moving Forward

The authoritative yet fruitless policies on drugs and the conflicts of interests amongst the prominent actors in the legal system have unveiled the social and fiscal costs of mass incarceration. America is at a crossroads — with many governments within the hierarchy now breaking the bank on a swelling prison population, it is time to rewrite the legislation on America’s penitentiaries. Violent offenders and the laws separating their offenses from nonviolent ones should be re-examined by states to ensure that the dangerous convicts are given punishments that fit the crime. Non-violent lawbreakers shall be held accountable for their crimes, but they pose lower risk and have a greater potential for redemption through cost-effective programs such as drug treatment. Nevertheless, even with the promises of politicians supporting non-violent offense reform, it can be difficult to separate offenses into one group or the other. For example, can felony murders in the state of California be regarded as violent if an individual was present at the scene of a homicide without taking direct part in the offense?

On a positive note, President Obama has already taken the initiative to commute the sentences of 46 non-violent Federal drug offenders in July 2015, adopting a “smart on crime” rather than “tough on crime” approach. Obama’s focus on drug-treatment and sentencing for nonviolent crimes seems fair for a policy, but it only has direct applicability for federal prisoners, who account for just 14% of all inmates. The silver lining in Obama’s rhetoric is most visible as a starting step for a social movement that can overcome public conceptions of drug convicts as criminals rather than neglected patients; rather than being marginalized through cycles of crime, poverty, and police surveillance, drug abusers would be recognized as health patients, needing a treatment-based rather than sentencing-based approach. Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have readily supported this notion, while even hardline conservatives like Ted Cruz, who vowed to “rip Obamacare to shreds,” have recognized the country’s broken drug policies. Democrat and Republican senators alike also came to an agreement in October 2015 to allow judges to hand out sentences below mandatory minimums by 25% by their discretion, and instead favour rehabilitation. While a social movement for drug offenders has been widely supported by legislators, sensible approaches to other sentencing laws must bear in mind the intertwinement of race division and policy, such as the country’s racially biased crack laws. What is referred to as the 100 to 1 ratio of possession weight leading to equivalent sentences for crack and powder cocaine, two forms of the same substance with near-equal properties, should be re-evaluated by policy makers through a cohesive approach that extends beyond conflicts of interest between the Feds, State, prosecutors, and defense. Thus, the racial division resulting from current drug policy effects must be addressed with appropriate weight, to accompany any all-encompassing reform to smart drug treatment.

Cost-effective drug-treatment programs and the passing of bills may seem like sound solutions for giving treatment where needed under the lines of “true justice,” yet there is much left to be done for those who are violent offenders. Focusing on the nonviolent drug offenders will only deal with 6% of all state-level inmates — far from enough to reduce US incarceration rates to “normal” levels on par with Russia’s incarceration rate, or European averages. This is the pain point for the majority of conservative leaders who argue that violent offenders are serving appropriate times for their crimes. To target the issues of mass incarceration, drug policy reform is only a fraction of the other issues at hand. What is needed is a re-examination of who the state deems dangerous upon release, and to reduce this number through in-prison rehabilitation and compassionate release terms for old-age. Supported by indirect measures of poverty alleviation such as a focus on early childhood education and fairer wages, a prison poverty trap must be given a human face to re-examine public perception of the role of the prison. If prisons have not served their function to deter crime, mend high-risk communities, or promise brighter futures for the next generation, what is its true societal value?

Works cited

“A Brief History of the Drug War.” Drug Policy Alliance.

“Corrections Corporation of America.” Center for Responsive Politics.

“Dismantling the Prison State.” The Century Foundation.

“The Cost of Prison Overcrowding in Illinois.” John Howard Association of Illinois.

“The New Jim Crow.” Michelle Alexander.

“Too Old to Commit Crime?” The New York Times.

“Trends in U.S. Corrections.” The Sentencing Project.