Mass incarceration is an issue that is detrimental to the well-being of America's communities, especially those of minorities. Read about how mass incarceration has these negative effects and what steps should be taken to create change.
America is one of the leading countries in the number of incarcerated criminals, housing nearly 25 percent of the world’s prison population despite only having five percent of the world’s population. Following the “War on Drugs” in the late 1900s, the United States put forth legislation that made jail-time a first resort, rather than a last one. From then on, the prison population has boomed, increasing by nearly 700 percent, culminating in approximately 2.3 million people in U.S. prisons today. Today's issue of overcrowding our prisons is dubbed “Mass Incarceration.” It is yet another way the criminal justice system has failed the citizens of the United States. We invest in contracting private prisons and building federal ones instead of alternative courts or programs to help those convicted. However, it's more than just a criminal justice problem. It's a racial issue, a health issue, and an economic issue.
Out of the 2.3 million people in U.S. prisons, a large percentage are minorities. Studies show that one in every three Black boys are expected to serve prison-time in their life, and one in every six Latino boys compared to one in every 17 White boys. However, women are also an increasing demographic in American prisons. Regardless of the economic setbacks that incarceration causes convicts such as increased difficulty in job opportunities, there are a myriad of human rights abuses within the prison system. One of these abuses is the lack of access to proper medical resources.
During the COVID-19 outbreak, the virus has spread throughout prison systems like wildfire, resulting in up to over 50,000 cases and over 600 deaths since the pandemic started. To combat this, certain prisons have started to set bail for petty crimes to zero dollars to decrease the number of new prisoners transported and held in prison facilities dealing with the pandemic, while others have let out those who are nearing the end of their sentence or those who are most susceptible to the disease. However while these strides seem great, it is still not enough, and many people fall between the cracks of these criteria, remaining in prisons despite the increased risk. And, judging by simply the nature of prisons, social distancing is nearly impossible and the United States is doing an inadequate job at providing prisoners with adequate support and services needed to handle the pandemic.
In addition to the serious health concerns surrounding the system of mass incarceration in the United States, using incarceration as a first resort is economically inefficient and holistically damaging to its victims. Not only do criminal records make finding employment after being released from jail difficult and sometimes nearly impossible depending on the occupation, but they may also cause people to seek illegal methods in gaining income (such as drug dealing) and thus cause those who are released from prisons to return again in their lifetime. Instead, problem-solving courts are a better alternative. Not only does problem-solving justice cost less to uphold, but it also works in eliminating the cause of the problem and establishing long-term solutions, rather than severely penalizing people for their first offense.
The Bottom Line:
Mass incarceration further exacerbates several problems within communities and causes victims of the broken criminal justice system, most of which are minorities, to be punished rather than helped. There is an issue when the country that stands for justice and freedom is the one holding the most people within jail cells, preventing them from having a better future, instead of investing in treatment and alternative methods to curb crime rates.
The prison system needs reform, and when looked at alongside the calls for criminal justice reform, this is exactly when we should be prioritizing: dismantling mass incarceration and brainstorming more efficient, effective and equitable solutions to crime in the United States. The prison system causes many victims to be caught in a vicious cycle of poverty and incarceration, and it needs to end now.