Why does the U.S. have the biggest percentage of our population in prison? When I first heard this it somewhat surprised me. I thought surely those countries led by dictators would be higher. Given the reputation of the Gulags in Russia why are they not higher than us? I did a little digging and it seems the answer is really not clear. But there seems to be at least a few pointers that might be part of the cause:
Incarceration for drug offenses has increased 12-fold from 40,000 in 1981 to nearly 500,000 by 2010, accounting for two-thirds of the rise in the federal inmate population since 1985.
After the passage of Reagan’s Anti-Drug Abuse Act in 1986, incarceration for non-violent offenses dramatically increased. The Act imposed the same five-year mandatory sentence on users of crack as on those possessing 100 times as much powder cocaine. This had a disproportionate effect on low-level street dealers and users of crack, who were more commonly poor blacks, Latinos, the young, and women.
Courts were given more discretion in sentencing by the Kimbrough v. United States (2007) decision, and the disparity was decreased to 18:1 by the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. As of 2006, 49.3% of state prisoners, or 656,000 individuals, were incarcerated for non-violent crimes. As of 2008, 90.7% of federal prisoners, or 165,457 individuals, were incarcerated for non-violent offenses.
By 2003, 58% of all women in federal prison were convicted of drug offenses. Women of color are disproportionately affected by the War on Drugs. African American women’s incarceration rates for all crimes, largely driven by drug convictions, have increased by 800% since 1986, compared to an increase of 400% for women of other races.
Within three years of being released, 67% of ex-prisoners re-offend and 52% are re-incarcerated, according to a study published in 1994. The rate of recidivism is so high in the United States that most inmates who enter the system are likely to reenter within a year of their release. Former inmate Wenona Thompson argues “I realized that I became part of a cycle, a system, that looked forward to seeing me there. And I was aware that…I would be one of those people who fill up their prisons”.
Another factor is the now for-profit prison systems springing up around the country. Those who make a profit by imprisoning our citizenship find a way with their lobbying clout to make sure that we “stay tough on crime”.
It is hard for some of us to remember that cocaine was once a legal substance in this country. The soft drink Coke was named after it as that was an ingredient in the secret formula. A high percentage of those imprisoned for drug crimes are for use or sale of marijuana. It will be interesting to see the effect of that substance being legalized in some of our States.
This is yet another area where we might learn some things from other countries. But, as usual we will just go down the same road we are going irregardless of the rest of the world.
On April 28, 2013 I received the following email correcting some of this data:
I found your blog very interesting and I too hope to shed light on this travesty. I have done some research and found that the following statement is exaggerated a bit.
Another contributing factor to United States’ spike in the number of prisoners is the War on Drugs, formally initiated by Richard Nixon with the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 and avidly pursued by Ronald Reagan. Incarceration for drug offenses has increased 12-fold from 40,000 in 1981 to nearly 500,000 by 2010, accounting for two-thirds of the rise in the federal inmate population since 1985.
As of 2011 there are 500,000 inmates in state and federal prison, up from 41,000 in 1981. Federal inmates charged with drug related crimes totaled 200,000.
It would mean a great deal to me if you changed this. I am the original source of the text in question and gave you false information via wikipedia.