America’s High Incarceration Rate 

By Daisy Garcia 

Mass Incarceration Syndrome

As violent crimes soared from 1960 to 1980 the U.S. began sending more people to prison and implementing policies that contained harsher sentencing laws. For example, mandatory minimums combined with a cutback in parole releases kept many people in jails and prisons for longer periods.

How we got here? It first began in 1968, during Richard Nixon’s presidency, who polarized the term “war on drugs”. “War on Drugs” referred to a government-led initiative that aimed to stop illegal drug use, distribution, and trade by increasing and enforcing penalties for offenders. This movement continues to evolve to this day.

According to History.com, an increase in recreational drug use in the 1960s is what likely led to Nixon’s focus on targeting substance abuse. A Gallup poll also stated, that about 48 percent of Americans thought drugs were a serious problem at this time.

In response to public outcry, states and the federal government enacted these series of laws, lengthening sentences for many crimes as it seemed like a reasonable approach to protecting the public.

It wasn’t until Ronald Raegan’s presidency that set the stage for the zero-tolerance policies that were first implemented under Nixon. Reagan’s presidency marked a long period of increased rates of incarceration. The Sentencing Project’s website — which is an organization that aims for a fair and effective U.S. criminal system, stated that the number of people behind bars for nonviolent drug offenses jumped from 50,000 in 1980 to over 400,000 by 1997, making the nation experience a prison boom causing America to gain the title as the world’s number one jailer.

Drug Policies

Since then, drug arrests have tripled in the last 25 years, but most of these arrests have been for simple possession of low-level drugs. A study by the Global Commission on Drugs stated that, in 2005, nearly 43 percent of all drug arrests were for marijuana offenses and that marijuana possession arrests accounted for 79 percent of the growth in drug arrests in the 1990s. A majority of these people had no history of violence or no high-level drug selling activity.

Could marijuana be responsible for mass incarceration?

The DEA classifies marijuana as a schedule 1 drug, meaning it is categorized as having no medical potential and a high potential for abuse. Marijuana is currently legal in 29 states and Washington D.C.—some for medical use only and others for both medical and recreational use. A marijuana plant itself has over 100 active components. The least controversial extract from a marijuana plant is known as CBD — which stands for cannabidiol. CBD is a component of the plant that has little to sometimes no intoxicating properties, meaning it’s marijuana without the high. According to HealthHarvard.edu, a study showed that patients reported many benefits of CBD, from relieving insomnia, anxiety, spasticity, and pain—to treating potentially life-threatening conditions like epilepsy.

But since the early 1990s, the focus of drug arrests nationally has shifted from a prior emphasis on cocaine and heroin to increasing marijuana arrests. These simple, non-violent arrests can create bigger problems on their own to society. For example, according to the NAACP, a criminal record can reduce the likelihood of a callback or a job offer by nearly 50 percent, affecting unemployment rates.

Treatment for drug abuse is another prolonged issue in the criminal justice system for those struggling with drug addiction. Over time we have seen an increase in evidence that supports addiction is a treatable disease but individuals, especially in prisons and jails do not receive any form of treatment. The Drug Policy organization proposes that if people charged with drug possession offenses were offered appropriate community-based treatment instead of incarceration or drug-related probation or parole violations, these treatments could enhance the safety of the public because of reduction on drug-related crime. These treatments could also help preserve jail and prison space for violent offenders.

Racial Disparity—Young Black Men

There is less direct discrimination in America than there was before. Thanks to the civil rights movement that brought a wave of reform, we are seeing more prominent African American athletes, politicians, doctors, actors and more. Then why is that minorities are more likely to be arrested than a white American? Once a minority is arrested, they are more likely to be convicted; once convicted, they are more likely to face a harsher sentence.

More than any other race group, African Americans have felt the greatest impact of the prison boom. African Americans make up less than thirteen percent of the U.S. population, yet make up more than half of all people in prison. According to Marked—a book addressing race, crime and mass incarceration, author Devah Pager writes,

“Throughout a lifetime, nearly one in three young black men and well over half of young black high school dropouts will spend more time in prison.”

This estimates that young black men are more likely to be incarcerated than for example, go to go to college, serve in the military or even be in the labor market. Prison is no longer becoming a rare event among our black American community but rather a normal, anticipated part of the transition to adulthood.

The Revolving Door

Despite the number of inmates that are being released from jails and prisons every year, not much has been thought out in developing a long-term strategy for coping with criminal offenders. It’s a revolving door that is being kept fueled. When an offender is released he or she’s likelihood of returning behind bars is increased. According to, PrisonScholars.org, 67.8 percent of all released prisoners are re-arrested within three years of release.

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