Mass Incarceration in the U.S

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The U.S. currently holds over 2 million prisoners. The U.S accounts for only 5 % of the world’s population, but houses 25% of the world’s total prisoners (AFSC, 2013). As of 2018, African Americans comprise 33 % of prisoners in the U.S, but only make up 12% of the general population. Additionally, Hispanics account for 23% of the prison population, compared to 16% of the total population (Pew Research Center, 2018). Even in our home state of Maine, African Americans are overrepresented in incarceration rates. The Sentencing Project reports that in 2014, African Americans made up only 1.3 % of Maine’s general population, but represented 7.1% of the state’s prison population.

Former public defender and current professor of law at Yale, James Forman Jr., authors the 2017 best-selling book, Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. Locking Up Our Own documents both the history and effects of mass incarceration and racial disparity in the United States.  Forman asserts that mass incarceration, with an overrepresentation of minorities, carries devastating consequences to the individuals imprisoned, their families, communities, and the nation as a whole. Therefore, solutions to correct these imbalances are desperately needed.

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How did we get here?

In fully understanding the nature of racial disparity in imprisonment, it is important to examine what led the nation to this state of affairs. The American Bar Association (2012) identifies “disproportionate crime rates, disparities in criminal justice processing, overlap of class and race effects, and the impact of race neutral policies” as contributing factors.

Disproportionate crime rates among minorities have only proven to account for part of the contribution to racial disparity in prisons. A study in 2004, conducted by sentencing scholar, Michael Tonry, found that only 60 % of the minority incarceration rate is explained by criminal behavior (American Bar Association, 2012). If everyone who is in imprisoned is truly a deviant criminal, who is a threat to society, then we would expect this finding to be reported at 100%. But rather, 40 % of minority overrepresentation in prisons is left to be explained by other factors.

Disparities in criminal justice processing, particularly in the areas of law enforcement, the “War on Drugs”, and prosecution contribute heavily to the disproportionate number of minorities in prison. Racial profiling has been of concern in regard to law enforcement practices and the “War on Drugs”. For example, African Americans are three times more likely than whites to be searched after a routine traffic stop. Additionally, James Forman (2017, p. 66) reports that African Americans are 2.5 times more likely to be pulled over for pretext traffic stops. In 2005, African-Americans made up only 14 % of drug users, but represented an astonishing 53 % of those imprisoned for drug convictions (American Bar Association, 2012). Moreover, District Attorneys have been found two times more likely to bring charges carrying minimum sentences against African American defendants, compared to their Caucasian counterparts (Ghandnoosh, 2015). It is safe to say, disparities in criminal justice processing make up a large portion of the lingering 40 % of contributing factors to minority groups being behind bars.

Furthermore, it is vital to note the effects of class on racial disparity in prisons. Minorities that come from low socioeconomic backgrounds often cannot afford to pay private attorneys. Instead, they use public defenders, who all too often are working on too many cases and do not have access to enough resources. Also, defendants who do not have private health insurance will likely be directed toward the criminal justice system rather than a treatment or rehabilitation facility, as there are extensive waiting lists for publically funded treatment programs (American Bar Association, 2012). Low SES individuals are truly at heightened risk of conviction.

Lastly, race neutral policies, are not always race neutral. Ted Chiricos, a criminologist, discovered a correlation between support of severe sentencing policies and “black” crimes. For example, school zone drug laws largely affect minority groups. Urban neighborhoods often are closer to schools, and many minority groups reside in these very neighborhoods. In New Jersey, 96% of individuals convicted for violating school zone drug laws were minorities (American Bar Association, 2012). Additionally, there are still disparities between powder and Crack Cocaine offense laws, that carry five-year minimum sentences. Even after the 2010 Fair Sentencings Act, passed by the Obama administration, the powder Cocaine amount for a minimum sentence is still at an 18-1 ratio compared to the amount for Crack Cocaine. This again targets low income minorities who often purchase Crack Cocaine, simply because it is cheaper than powder Cocaine (a more “white-collar” form of the drug) (Gotsch, 2018). Therefore, these polices are not exactly “race neutral”.

What are the consequences?

Disproportionate imprisonment of minorities brings harmful consequences not only to the incarcerated individual and their family, but to the community and the entire nation as well.

Individuals who have been incarcerated face many challenges. Some of those challenges are psychological in nature, due to the harmful conditions of prisons. Prisoners who return home often struggle to reintegrate back into normal everyday life. Some of the psychological effects of having been incarcerated include: difficulty being independent, hypervigilance, distrust and suspicion of others, alienation, psychological distancing, social withdrawal and isolation, continued use of “prison norms”, feelings of low self-worth, and PTSD (Craig Haney University of California, 2001). Not to mention, recent incarceration reduces the chances of an individual acquiring assets, like a bank account or vehicle (Scommegna, 2017). Incarceration also has been linked to stagnation in upward mobility (Schiller, 2017). Overall, incarceration negatively impacts the individual’s long-term functioning and well-being.

Furthermore, incarceration causes collateral damage. Families of prisoners suffer. African American children are six times more likely than Caucasian children to have a parent in prison. Children who have had a parent in prison are more likely to drop out of school, have learning disabilities, act out in school, experience anxiety and depression, become homeless, suffer from PTSD, and develop physical ailments (migraines, asthma, high cholesterol). These effects on children contribute to the racial achievement gap in the U.S. (Strauss, 2017). Children with fathers in prison could even be more likely to eventually go to prison themselves. For instance, higher dropout rates are linked to African American teens with a parent in prison, and those teens who do drop out of high school are 10 times more likely to be imprisoned during their lifetime than African Americans who go on to college (Forman, 2017, p. 22). Moreover, spouses of prisoners also suffer. Women who were cohabitating with men before they were imprisoned often lose assets, end the relationship, or have children with other partners (Scommegna, 2017). Incarceration of a family member adds to the disadvantages that many minorities with low income already experience.

Mass incarceration takes a toll on communities as well. A study was conducted in a Detroit neighborhood with a high incarceration rate. 1500 participants in these neighborhoods (who had no other interactions with the corrections system) were interviewed over phone. The results were that those living in “high exposure” neighborhoods were more likely to meet the diagnostic criteria for Major Depressive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. These results may be due to factors such as: frequently seeing parole officers around the neighborhood, witnessing how these parole officers treat paroles, and targeting by police in these areas (Strauss, 2017). Already struggling communities suffer even more due to high incarceration rates.

Lastly, mass incarceration harms the nation as a whole. Mass incarceration is not sustainable. Annually, the U.S spends $80 billion on keeping prisons running (Schiller, 2017). Moreover, mass incarceration and racial disparity of those incarcerated is a moral issue. The injustices committed against minority groups do not align with the very values the U.S was built on. These individuals would argue that they are not granted liberty and the pursuit of happiness. As a nation, we cannot continue to head down this destructive path.

How do we correct this imbalance?

Fortunately, there are several reforms that could help remedy the racial imbalance plaguing prisons. Among these recommendations are: redirecting the “War on Drugs”, revising mandatory sentencing, lowering the punishments for serious crimes, increasing and improving training on recognizing implicit bias of those that work in the criminal justice system, adopting racial impact legislation, examining individual choices, and making policy changes. (Nellis, 2016) (Forman, 2017).

The “War on Drugs” has proven ineffective at reducing drug crimes, as well as at dealing with addiction. State and federal laws are still in place that punish low-level drug crime offenders with harsh prison sentences. The nation’s resources would be better allocated to drug prevention efforts and creating more accessible drug intervention and treatment programs (Nellis, 2016). Ultimately, low-level drug offenders would be directed towards the mental health system instead of the criminal justice system.

The federal and state government should take a closer look at minimum sentencing. Minimum sentencing removes judicial discretion and the idea of an individualized approach to rehabilitation. This means, even if an experienced judge sees that a defendant is not a threat to society, he still must sentence this individual in accordance to the minimum sentence (Nellis, 2016). Sending defendants to prison for drug offenses and nonviolent crimes that carry unnecessary long sentences uses up more resources that are already stretched thin; resources that could be better used elsewhere (improving school systems, building more hospitals, etc.).

Furthermore, lowering the severe sentences that accompany more serious crimes is needed to break down racial disparity in the prison system. Due to the aforementioned factors that send more minorities to prison than whites, minorities often have more prior offenses on their records. These individuals get deemed “habitual offenders” and receive long prison sentences, even though they may not pose any danger to the public (Nellis, 2016).

Implicit bias must be addressed through adequate and frequent trainings. Judges, jurors, law enforcement, and prosecutors often hold biases of which they are unaware. If unchecked, these prejudices lead to discrimination. Trainings have proven effective at helping those involved in the criminal justice process recognize their biases and how to challenge them. A self-report study in California found that judges who received implicit bias trainings reported a reduction in their implicit biases after the training (Nellis, 2016). Therefore, this training is proven to be successful.

Racial impact legislation also is an essential aspect of reform. Racial impact legislation requires policy makers assess the potential outcome of criminal code changes on minorities. In this concept, legislatures are encouraged to explore alternative options with less of a predicted negative impact on racial disparity in the prison system (Nellis, 2016).

James Forman suggests we also examine the affect of individual choices on the matter of mass incarceration.  In response to the case of Dante and Mr. Thomas choosing not to support sending him to prison, Foreman (2017, p. 238) writes, “Individual choices like Mr. Thomas’ matter immensely to the people involved, even if they barely touch the system as a whole”. Mr. Thomas’ choice to forgive instead of seeking retribution is a rare occurrence in our society today. His decision to forgive truly made all the difference for one young, African American man. Foreman (2017, p. 236) goes on to write, “Ever since the day of Dante’s sentencing, I’ve wondered what our criminal justice system would be like if we tried to approach it the way Mr. Thomas did. What if we came to see that justice requires accountability, but not vengeance?”. Foreman is encouraging us to all become more like Mr. Thomas in a respect, and approach justice in a more compassionate, understanding way; an approach rooted in rehabilitation, not retribution.

Foreman (2017, p. 236) also introduces policy changes to improve the criminal justice system. He mentions better funding for public defenders, improving education in prisons, restoring voting rights to offenders, and welcoming past offenders back into society.


Mass incarceration and racial disparity of those imprisoned must be addressed. As Forman (2017, p. 45) eloquently writes, “Mass incarceration is the result of small, distinct steps, each of whose significance becomes more apparent over time, and only when considered in light of later events.”

The disparities in criminal justice processing, effects of class, and ineffective “race neutral” policies have led us to this crisis. Individuals, families, communities, and the nation are suffering.  Reforms such as: redirecting the “War on Drugs”, revising mandatory sentencing, lowering the punishments for serious crimes, increasing training on recognizing implicit bias of those that work in the criminal justice system, adopting racial impact legislation, valuing independent choices, and making policy changes all have potential to right these injustices. Criminal justice reform is truly a necessary step in making America a place for all people to experience equal opportunity and the pursuit of happiness.

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Mass Incarceration in the U.S. (2019, Sep 22). Retrieved from