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The growing problems of the prison system

fence outside a Michigan prison
Fence outside a Michigan prison Photo: AFSC

Putting prison overcrowding in perspective:

According to the Bureau for Justice Statistics, the number of adult federal and state prison inmates increased from 139 per 100,000 residents in 1980 to 502 per 100,000 in 2009 — an increase of 261 percent. Over two million Americans are now incarcerated in prisons or jails and the total number of Americans under some form of penal supervision (including jail, prison, parole and probation) is over 7.2 million.

According to the U.K.-based International Centre for Prison Studies, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world at 756 per 100,000, including juveniles as well as adults. With less than five percent of the world’s population, the U.S. accounts for about a quarter of its prison population.

It was not always this way.

When Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in the early 1800s, he was impressed by the leniency of the young republic’s system of corrections. In the opening chapter of Democracy in America, he wrote that “In no country is criminal justice administered with more mildness than in the United States.”

For most of the 20th century, U.S. prison rates were fairly low and stable by comparison with contemporary levels. From 1930 to 1970, for example, the average annual rate of imprisonment was around 110 per 100,000.

But beginning in the 1970s, a number of political and economic factors gave rise to the prison boom, which was to bring the nation to the age of mass incarceration, which in turn would have far reaching and sometimes devastating impacts on those affected. Incarceration became the default setting rather than the backstop of the criminal justice system. This would most heavily impact low income, low skilled young men without high school diplomas or post-secondary education—and this was disproportionately true for young African Americans.

Contributing factors to the prison boom included fears of crime and unrest, political hysteria regarding drugs, a backlash against the gains of the civil rights movement, widening economic inequality and a decline in the demand for low-skilled labor.

The policy response around the nation included new criminal penalties, more severe sentencing and parole systems, less reliance on probation and other alternatives to incarceration, and a mushrooming prison building industry.

While drug use occurs throughout society, low income urban communities are more heavily policed, in part because more daily life occurs in public spaces and illegal activities are more difficult to hide.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, “The racial disparities resulting from this system have been staggering. Black individuals are imprisoned at nearly six times the rate of their white counterparts — and Latinos are locked up at nearly double the white rate. Most of this racial disparity is a result of the War on Drugs. While these groups engage in drug use, possession, and sales at rates comparable to their representation in the general population, the system disparately impacts people of color. For example, black individuals comprise 13% of the U.S. population and 14% of drug users, yet they are 37% of the people arrested for drug offenses and 56% of those incarcerated for drug crimes.”

When young people are incarcerated, the effects last a lifetime, impacting job quality, earnings, assets, home ownership, marriage and family life, public benefits and, in some states, voting rights. When this occurs disproportionally in low income and minority communities, the effects reach far beyond those immediately involved.

The American Friends Service Committee is trying to change this trend, not only bringing attention to the issue at a policy level, but also working with men inside the prison system, as well as young people who bear the brunt of challenges in marginalized urban settings affected by decades of over reliance on incarceration as a way to solve broader social problems.

- AFSC West Virginia Economic Justice Project Program Director Rick Wilson