Why Is the Incarceration Rate so High in the US?

According to commonly cited statistics, the United States has about 5% of the world’s population, but houses 25% of the world’s prison population. Most people agree that this percentage is too high and it has turned into a bipartisan issue to determine how the statistic can be lowered and what are the root causes for the high amount of people incarcerated. Much debate occurs over what caused this high incarceration rate, which has drastically increased since the 1980s. Below are various sources people attribute the high incarceration rate to.

The War on Drugs

Since the 1980s, the United States government has cracked down on drug-related crimes. If someone is found with just a small amount of illegal drugs on their person, they may go to prison for several years, even if they’re a minor. Anyone involved in drug smuggling and production can also be charged at the full level of the crime, even if their role was incredibly small or a one-time involvement. The law has become tougher on drug-related crimes in an effort to reduce drug abuse in the country. Whether or not this method works is a hotly contested issue.

Longer non-violent crimes sentences

In addition to long sentences for drug-related non-violent crime, other non-violent crimes now come with more serious sentences. Recently, California reduced certain non-violent crimes to misdemeanors instead of felonies, which resulted in 2,700 non-violent criminals being released from jail. More and more crimes are being labeled as felonies, which result in longer sentences, even when the crimes themselves are victimless or non-violent.

Trying minors as adults

Another issue that seems to have spiked the imprisonment rate is the trend of trying minors as adults in various cases. Since the 1980s, instances of minors committing violent crimes has risen, which results in the court being more likely to try them as adults, which results to longer sentences. These sentences lead to the juvenile being held in adult facilities. Since the offenders are usually high school age, their imprisonment prevents them from completing school, which leads to difficulty acquiring a job and the likelihood that they’ll revert back to crime in order to sustain themselves.

Political reasons

Politicians wish to appear as though they are tough on crime in order to help their approval ratings and the easiest way to do that is by handing out tougher prison sentences. Unfortunately, these sentences usually apply to non-violent criminals who usually serve short sentences due to the nature of their crimes.

In an interview with SlateJohn Pfaff, a Fordham Law School professor, espouses an interesting new theory. He believes most people don’t really understand the reason for the high incarceration rate. He argues that the War on Drugs and longer sentences absolutely do not account for the increase of the prison population. Pfaff believes the real culprit is district attorneys. It became more likely after the 1980s that a DA charged someone with a felony. While there isn’t a clear answer as to why a DA would do that, Pfaff believes the answer might be that DAs began having higher political aspirations and knew a strong anti-crime stance could help them advance their careers.

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