Why Prison Incarceration Rates Are High Essay

Length: 9 pages Sources: 8 Subject: Criminal Justice Type: Essay Paper: #23024222 Related Topics: Restorative Justice, Criminal Justice System, Incarceration, Prison
Excerpt from Essay :

The High Incarceration Rate: A Significant Issue Faced by the Criminal Justice System


This paper examines the problem of the high rate of incarceration in America. This is a major challenge for the criminal justice system, as many people, families and communities suffer as a result of this high rate. It prevents individuals from improving their lives and can lead to the deterioration of families and neighborhoods. The paper discusses some of the policies that have been put in place in recent years to address this issue. It also discusses alternative solutions and how the rate could be brought down by way of decriminalization of drug use and the implementation of diversion programs or restorative justice programs.


The problem of the high incarceration rate is one that affects more than prisoners and the prison population. It affects communities as well as the economics and politics of the nation. America has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world (Gramlich, 2018) with more than 2 million individuals in prison or jail—approximately 860 adults out of 100,000 people in the U.S. This is a problem because it means a significant proportion of the American population is affected one way or another by incarceration. Families are split up and divided, communities are troubled, and millions have records (when finally released) that prevent them from being seriously considered for decent jobs. Year after year, more people are funneled into the prison industrial complex (Brewer & Heitzig, 2008), from which there is, realistically speaking, little hope of return. The prison industrial complex, a term coined in 1998, refers to the “complex configuration comprised of the US prison system, multi-national corporations, small private businesses and the inmate population in the social and political economy of the 21st century United States” (Smith & Hattery, 2006, p. 1).  This complex system represents a new form of slavery in America that is essentially disregarded by many because it operates under a legal pretext accepted by the mainstream as normal criminal justice (Davis, 2012). The high incarceration rate represents a moral, social, economic and political decline for America.

Individual and Social Implications

The individual and social implications of this problem are myriad: 1) individuals who are incarcerated face a much more difficult path in life than those who are never imprisoned, 2) the likelihood that they will be recycled through the prison industrial complex on more than one occasion is far higher for those who have been imprisoned previously than for those never jailed, 3) a higher percentage of minority males are imprisoned than whites, 4) minority communities are thus destabilized as a high percentage of minority families are undermined with fathers, sons and brothers imprisoned and re-imprisoned, often for technical violations of parole, 5) corporations take advantage of this system by using prison labor as a source of cheap labor, which incentivizes the privatized world to perpetuate the system and find legal reasons to keep it going (Davis, 2012; Smith & Hattery, 2006; Soyer, 2016). All of these factors end up contributing to a cycle of personal and social injustice that is perpetuated from one generation to the next. It destabilizes any efforts at regeneration and leads to the continued social and moral deterioration of populations that require whole families and community support. The interlinked nature of crime, culture, society, economics and politics makes it so that this issue is not one that can be addressed at any one level but rather must be addressed holistically at all levels because it is not just a criminal issue—a matter of people breaking the law and being punished. It is a cultural, social, economical and political issue.

What the Experts Say

Much of the problem is rooted in the more stringent sentencing guidelines adopted in the War on Drugs—sentencing that required longer prison times, mandatory minimum sentencing, offenses that had been misdemeanors changed to felonies, and a new policy called “Three Strikes You’re Out” (Smith & Hattery, 2006). This more stringent approach to sentencing drug criminals has resulted in an exponential increase in the prison population since the 1990s. As Smith and Hattery (2006) point out, “Currently 450,000 of the more than 2 million inmates (45%) in state and federal prison are incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses.  In contrast, this is more people than the European Union, an entity with a 100 million more people than the United States, has in prison for all crimes combined” (p. 3). Moreover, the prison industrial complex has benefitted handsomely from this more stringent sentencing set of guidelines: “States and the federal government continue to spend about $10 billion a year imprisoning drug offenders,” (Smith & Harvey, 2006, p. 3)—which means the prison industrial complex is seeing $10 billion annually in revenue. Imprisonment has become a big business and instead of…higher perceptions of fairness and greater feelings of justice through the restorative justice programs as opposed to victim reports of traditional justice programs” (p. 2349). Johnson et al. (2015) also note that in cases where restorative justice has been tried, recidivism rates have fallen by 26%. That is a significant decline and indicates that traditional methods of justice, such as incarceration in the prison industrial complex, where many have their lives ruined and from which so many communities suffer, need to be rethought and set aside in favor of new forms of seeing justice done.

The idea that the only way for justice to be done is through prison time is outworn and outmoded. Today’s world needs a better example of how people should live, and restoration is a good place to start. This teaches the criminal that the law is not interested in destroying anyone’s life for making a mistake. It teaches the criminal to have respect for other people and their property. By engaging in restorative justice it teaches the community that this level of respect, appreciation and humility is what makes society function in a positive manner. When entire communities are locked up, it fosters feelings of hatred and these feelings can turn menacing. The best thing that the criminal justice system can do at this point is to implement a better method of dealing with crime and serving justice.


Incarceration rates in the U.S. are the highest of any country in the world. This indicates that there is a considerable problem in the American criminal justice system. As the leader of the free world, it may be time for the U.S. to look at its criminal justice system and address some of the shortcomings that are appearing there. The reason it should be addressed is that there are individual and social consequences of high incarceration rates. People who are locked up have a harder time getting a job when they are released and the risk of recidivism rises. People who are imprisoned are separated from their families and communities and cannot contribute to either in any meaningful way. Because of the nature of the prison industrial complex, prisoners are used by companies as sources of cheap labor, which in no way benefits the prisoner or improves his condition. Alternatives to this issue or to try diversion programs or restorative justice, and recent efforts to decriminalize drug use may…

Sources Used in Documents:


Brewer, R. M., & Heitzeg, N. A. (2008). The racialization of crime and punishment: Criminal justice, color-blind racism, and the political economy of the prison industrial complex. American Behavioral Scientist, 51(5), 625-644.

Davis, A. (2012). The Meaning of Freedom. San Francisco, CA: City Light Books.

Gramlich, J. (2018). America’s incarceration rate is at a two-decade low. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/05/02/americas-incarceration-rate-is-at-a-two-decade-low/

Johnson, T., Quintana, E., Kelly, D. A., Graves, C., Schub, O., Newman, P., & Casas, C. (2015). Restorative Justice Hubs Concept Paper. Revista de Mediación, 8(2), 2340-9754.

Mears, D. P., Kuch, J. J., Lindsey, A. M., Siennick, S. E., Pesta, G. B., Greenwald, M. A., & Blomberg, T. G. (2016). Juvenile court and contemporary diversion: Helpful, harmful, or both?. Criminology & Public Policy, 15(3), 953-981.

Peters, R. H., Wexler, H. K., & Lurigio, A. J. (2015). Co-occurring substance use and mental disorders in the criminal justice system: A new frontier of clinical practice and research. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal, 38(1), 1-6.

Smith, E., & Hattery, A. (2006). The prison industrial complex. Sociation Today, 4(2), 1-28.

Soyer, M. (2016). A dream denied: Incarceration, recidivism, and young minority men in America. Univ of California Press.

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