Responding to mass incarceration

June 12th, 2017

What is mass incarceration?

Mass incarceration is a term used by historians and sociologists to describe a dramatic rise in the prison population in the United States that began in 1972 and continues today. In that year, the total prison population in the United States only included 200,000 persons. Today, that number stands at 2.2 million. Over the past 45 years, the United States has imprisoned more people than any other country in the world. At present, 25 percent of the world’s total prison population can be found in the United States.

This increase in prisoners isn’t a result of the United States having more violent crime (for example, sexual assault and murder) than other countries. Nations like Colombia, South Africa, and Saint Kitts and Nevis have far higher violent crime rates but incarcerate a lower percentage of their population. Moreover, the violent crime rate in the United States has been nearly cut in half since 1991, yet the prison population continues to climb. This unique and counterintuitive situation has many causes but one result: lots of people in prison.

The population of imprisoned persons isn’t static. People churn through the system as some are released while others are incarcerated, and still others sit in local jails awaiting trial because they can’t afford to pay bail. Because of the rate of churn through the system, this means there are nearly seven million adults under correctional supervision (including parole or supervised probation) at any time.

Across party lines

Opposition to mass incarceration has even crossed America’s notoriously polarized party lines. When Attorney General Jeff Sessions released a memo in May 2017 directing federal prosecutors to bring more serious charges against drug offenders, he was met with opposition from both Democrats and Republicans. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) cosponsored a bill that would allow judges to disregard mandatory minimum sentences. Even politicians as ideologically different as former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and former Obama advisor Van Jones have partnered together to discuss the various problems of mass incarceration and possible solutions.

A spokesperson for famous conservative donors David and Charles Koch explained why the brothers had teamed up with the ACLU to oppose mass incarceration by saying, “The fundamental problem with our current criminal justice system is that it is a two-tier system. The wealthy and connected experience dramatically better treatment than the poor, and guilt and innocence are often irrelevant.”

The rise of mass incarceration

One of the most-cited reasons for the growth of the prison population is the War on Drugs, which began in the 1980s and continued through the 1990s. Convinced that crack cocaine was much more dangerous than powder cocaine, politicians enacted laws that dealt out disproportionately harsh sentences for carrying even small amounts of crack cocaine. In addition, mandatory minimum-sentencing laws and three-strikes laws put offenders away for longer periods of time.

A further reason for the increase in the prison population was the rise of for-profit prisons, which often require states to put a certain number of people in prison. Although for-profit prisons only account for 8–10 percent of inmates, they frequently lobby for harsher and longer sentences to increase the stability of their business model.

John Pfaff, a professor of law at Fordham University, argues that while all of these may be contributing factors, they aren’t the main cause. He believes that prosecutors are the biggest problem. According to Pfaff, district attorneys have far more resources than underfunded and understaffed public defenders. Additionally, since most district attorneys are elected instead of appointed, they often run for office on a platform of being “tough on crime.” This creates an incentive structure leading to more incarceration.

A system of racial injustice

It’s easy to get lost in the statistics. Few of us can visualize two million people, the number of incarcerated persons in the United States. However, when we dig into the demographics of these numbers, there are some startling facts. For instance, African-American and Hispanic persons make up over half of the prison population but less than a quarter of the U.S. population. According to the NAACP, nearly one in six black men has been in prison. Current estimates are that one in three black youths will spend some time in prison.

This isn’t a result of people of color committing more crimes. For example, according to the ACLU, although white and black people use drugs at approximately the same rate, black people are four to five times more likely to go to jail as a result. “How exactly does a formally colorblind criminal justice system achieve such racially discriminatory results?” asks Michelle Alexander in her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. According to Alexander, this racial disparity is the result of the wide discretion given to police and prosecutors who decide who to arrest and what kind of charges to bring. When you add in mandatory minimums and three-strikes laws, this disparity is compounded even more. Senator Paul points out that “mandatory minimum sentences have unfairly and disproportionately incarcerated a generation of minorities.”

The prison population began its upward trend in the 1970s after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Alexander argues that by finding ways to classify black people as criminals, authorities were able to control their political and social power. For example, in many states, a felony conviction strips away voting rights. In Alabama, where I live, one in thirteen people can’t vote because of past convictions. That’s approximately 286,000 people. Yet Alabama isn’t at the top of this list. Florida disenfranchises over 10 percent of their population, followed closely by Mississippi, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. Most of these disenfranchised are people of color.

Consequences of mass incarceration

Alexander points out that people convicted of a felony enter a “parallel universe in which discrimination, stigma, and exclusion are perfectly legal,” and marks of citizenship like voting and jury service are denied. They’re “barred from public housing . . . , ineligible for food stamps,” forced to indicate their felony on job applications, and “denied licenses for a wide range of professions.” Those who churn through the system “find themselves locked out of the mainstream society and economy—permanently.” With all of these obstacles, many find their way back into the prison system because they’ve simply run out of options.

While the consequences for individuals are difficult, the consequences of mass incarceration on communities are devastating. A recent New York Times article titled “1.5 Million Missing Black Men” points out that for every 100 black women who aren’t in jail, there are only 83 black men. In Ferguson, Missouri, there are only 60 men for every 100 women. To show the contrast, in white communities there are 99 men for every 100 women. The impact of this population shortage on a community’s ability to sustain itself and build generational wealth and political power is staggering.

Since this problem has been growing for more than 40 years, and since we’re only now beginning to understand the policies and social dynamics that created it, there’s a long road ahead to resolve the issue. While we must remember that none of this concern for justice toward prisoners should take away from the justice due to victims, people of faith also have an obligation to “do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Part of Jesus’ call on the church is active engagement with the people whom society would prefer to forget, including prisoners. It’s in the lives of these people that we’re most likely to meet Christ. 

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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