The United States has the world’s highest incarceration rates. The direct result of the high incarceration rate is overcrowding of prisons. The situation is particularly dire in federal prisons, which were reported to be 39% over the capacity in 2013. Individual states have been designing means and strategies for addressing overcrowding but the federal government has been reluctant to do so. Unsurprisingly, the majority of inmates in all American prisons are of Black and Latino decent. Despite the white community comprising the majority racial group, there is an underrepresentation of the community in the country’s prisons. This points to the defective nature of the justice system of the country which seemingly targets low-income communities with the focus of keeping them behind bars rather than correcting crimes as they emerge. This paper seeks to discuss the incarceration patterns of the United States. Among other factors, the paper will provide details on the faulty nature of the justice system before recommending measures that could be put in place to address the ongoing issues.
According to data provided by the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics, incarceration rate of 2013 stood at 0.91% of the U.S adult population (Kaeble et al. 38). This signifies that at least one in every 110 adults was incarcerated, with up to 6.9 million adults being under correctional supervision. As of the end of 2016, the number of people under correctional supervision had fallen to 1 in 38 persons (Kaeble et al. 38). In spite of this improvement, the country’s incarceration rates still far exceed those of any other country. Mass incarcerations have been primarily blamed on laws which have been designed to be tough on crime. Among other laws, the most significant has to be the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. This law requires drug offenders to be jailed for up to 20 years depending on the type and quantity of drug. Before the law was enforced, a majority of drug offenders ended up on probation. Today, however, up to 95% of drug offenders end up serving lengthy sentences.
Evidence to the idea that the Anti-Drug Abuse Act particularly targets offenders from the African American community can be traced to the fact that crack cocaine and pot, some of the most common drugs in the African are of primary focus by law enforcers. In fact, the law introduced a one-hundred-to-one sentencing ratio for powder cocaine and crack cocaine, suggesting that those arrested with 5 grams of crack cocaine were eligible for serving the same sentences as those arrested with 500 grams of crack cocaine (Beaver). Considering that Blacks are more likely to be arrested in possession of crack cocaine while Caucasians are more likely to be arrested with powder cocaine, the law introduced racial disparity in the justice system.
Many scholars have argued that the justice system needs to relax its laws on non-violent offenders. In fact, the focus of the law should be rehabilitating drug offenders rather than convicting them. Furthermore, according to a report by Human Rights (5), the country’s tough-on-crime laws fail to rehabilitate offenders, with a majority being worse upon release.
The United States incarceration rate exceeds that of any other country in the world. Mass incarcerations are the result of tough-on-crime laws introduced in the past, particularly the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. This law is oppressive on the African American community as it targets offenders in possession of pot and crack cocaine. In order to address the issue of mass incarceration, it is necessary that the country’s justice system focuses on rehabilitating offenders rather than handing them jail terms.
Beaver, Alyssa L. “Getting a fix on cocaine sentencing policy: reforming the sentencing scheme of the anti-drug abuse act of 1986.” Fordham L. Rev. 78 (2009): 2531.
Human Rights Watch. “A nation behind bars: A human rights solution.” (2014). Available at: https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/related_material/2014_US_Nation_Behind_Ba rs_0.pdf
James, Nathan. The federal prison population buildup: Overview, policy changes, issues, and options. Congressional Research Service, 1994.
Kaeble, Danielle, et al. “Correctional populations in the United States, 2014.” Bureau of Justice Statistics, Washington, DC(2016).