Five Important Facts About America’s Mass Incarceration Problem

by | Jul 16, 2018

CNN recently reported on some of the issues that contribute to America’s high incarceration rate. The United States has the unfortunate distinction of having the highest incarceration rate of any country on earth. According to a 2018 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics about 2.2 million adults were held in America’s prisons and jails in 2016. This mass-incarceration system costs this country approximately $80 billion annually. Criminal Justice reform has bipartisan support in Congress, but the solutions are complex. CNN looked at five key facts that bring the root causes into focus:

  1. Most inmates in the United States are held in state prisons and local jails, not federal prisons. This highlights the need for reforms on the state and local level. It is also important to recognize that over 600,000 people are held in local jails, many of whom have not been convicted of a crime.
  2. Once someone is held in a local jail, it is often a matter of money that decides who gets out. Over 2/3 of all inmates in local jails have not be convicted. Those who are able to post bail get out quickly. Those who cannot are either stuck in jail pending court action or are forced to incur a high-interest bail bond. Those who remain in jail cannot work or support their families, which can result in a spiral of debt and incarceration.
  3. The “war on drugs” is not the primary reason people are held in state and local prisons and jails. Even so, inconsistent local drug enforcement laws contribute to higher rates of incarceration in some areas than others.
  4. Once a person in incarcerated, the system often creates a cycle of recidivism. One study of recidivism reports that of 25,000 offenders, nearly half were re-arrested. Another study found that first-time offenders had a lower recidivism rate than others.
  5. African Americans are still disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system, but the gap with whites in shrinking. Although African Americans represent 12% of the United States population, they represent 33% of the federal and state prison population. This compares with whites, who comprise 64% of the American population but only 30% of those who are incarcerated. It is notable that the gap has fallen in recent years, perhaps due in part to the national opioid crisis, which has affected large numbers of predominantly white communities.

There is no question that mass-incarceration must be address at both the state and federal levels in order to remove racial inequalities and reduce the cycle of recidivism created by mounting debt and barriers to reentry for all incarcerated people in this country.