The United States has the largest prison population in the world, according to various news sources. Many people look at this statistic and wonder how that could possibly be. Why are so many people, usually men, put into prison and for what? Both sides of the aisle have begun to examine this issue and agree it’s a bipartisan topic that should be addressed and changed, if possible. I’ll address several reasons, which are all very interconnected, that have been presented as to why the prison population is so high in the country.
Drug related offenses
The first reason that many feels are the largest contributing factor to the astronomical numbers of inmates in the U.S. prison system is the War on Drugs. From a recent study, the results show that, “during the 1980s, the U.S. Congress and most state legislatures enacted laws mandating lengthy prison sentences — often of 5, 10, and 20 years or longer — for drug offenses, violent offenses, and ‘career criminals.” Since the ‘80s, the War on Drugs has continued in earnest, focusing not on finding and cracking down on dealers or direct sources, but instead jailing people, often young men, for having minuscule amounts of marijuana on their person. Because marijuana is still criminalized in many states, despite its legality in others, people are frequently given jail time for possessing small amounts of the drug, even with no intention of selling it.
Related to the War on Drugs, but not exclusively, is the prosecution of minors as adults. Juveniles are now more likely to commit violent crimes, though the reason for why is not entirely clear. When a crime is particularly heinous in nature, such as murder, a jury is more likely to try the defendant as an adult.
In relation to the War on Drugs, juveniles are frequently caught carrying small amounts of marijuana or other drugs or even deal it themselves. There are also crimes that apply exclusively to juveniles that can get them imprisoned, such as truancy or running away. Statistically, those juveniles who have been previously in jail are much less likely to graduate high school, causing them to possibly be a repeat offender in the prison system, or break their probation over small issues that would normally be treated more leniently.
Long prison sentences
In the last few decades, prisoners have been handed longer sentences than they had previously received. An example of this issue is “In the 1990s, Congress and more than one-half of the states enacted ‘three strikes and you’re out’ laws that mandated minimum sentences of 25 years or longer for affected offenders.” These repeat offenders’ crimes were often victimless, most often associated with possession of drugs or a firearm. Luckily, in some states, these excessive prison sentences are being changes, which I addressed in my previous blog.
A final issue with the high number of inmates in United States’ jails is the frequency of repeat offenders. Due to more juveniles being imprisoned, then not being able to finish their education or find a job, they often end up back in the system.
Or, other prisoners will violate parole and immediately be put back into jail for a long term. In order to solve an issue like this one, the reasons why someone is a repeat offender need to be examined, especially when their crimes are of a less serious or nonviolent nature. All of these reasons affect young black men more so than other groups, possibly as a direct result of racial profiling laws.