The United States of America is the world’s leader in mass incarceration. Since 1970, the incarceration rate has increased by 700%. Most Americans argue that the war on drugs is the result of mass incarceration, but this does not necessarily answer the actual question of why so many people are incarcerated, or how we can reduce mass imprisonment in the United States.
Based on research conducted by the Sentencing Project, in the 40 years since the 1980s, due to sentencing policies, the number of people incarcerated for drug offenses in the United States has increased almost 10 fold. The researchers involved in the Sentencing Project further explain that, “harsh sentencing laws such as mandatory minimums keep many people convicted of drug offenses in prison for longer periods of time: in 1986, people released after serving time for a federal drug offense had spent an average of 22 months in prison. By 2004, people convicted of federal drug offenses were expected to serve almost three times that length: 62 months in prison.” Another report conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union states that “One out of every three Black boys born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime, as can one of every six Latino boys—compared to one of every 17 white boys. At the same time, women are the fastest-growing incarcerated population in the United States.” According to the Prison Policy Initiative “The American criminal justice system holds almost 2.3 million people in 1,833 state prisons, 110 federal prisons, 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,134 local jails, 218 immigration detention facilities, and 80 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S. territories.”
As the incarceration rates increased, new terms became part of the everyday vocabulary. Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness notes that, “The prison population began to grow in the 1970s when politicians from both parties used fear and thinly veiled racial rhetoric to push increasingly punitive policies.” This rhetoric began with President Richard Nixon declaring a war on crime and drugs. After Nixon, subsequent presidents argued that the war on drugs was a problem that had to be solved, and continued to be “tough on crime.” Instead of approaching drug use as a public health concern, presidents argued that they had to lock up more people to keep the American people safe, resulting in mass incarceration. This staggering rise in incarceration hit communities of color the hardest as they were disproportionately incarcerated then and remain so today. Many different communities of color have felt the impact of the discriminatory enforcement of drug laws. Although the effects vary by city or region nationwide the war on drugs has produced unequal outcomes across racial groups with the most egregious racial disparities among Black and Latinx people.
Why are we as Americans obsessed with locking people up? Does locking people up solve the social issues we have today? We need to ask ourselves, are we free of our racial history? Does simply electing a black president or reforming policies solve racial inequalities and injustices? How can we reduce mass incarceration? What are better alternatives to locking people up? Some options to mass incarceration include, but are not limited to, access to quality education, implementation of community-based economic programs, enhanced resources for struggling communities, mental health awareness and support, and ending the cycle of poverty.