Incarceration in America

Have you ever heard the term “decarceration?” My guess is probably not, at least unless you are a prison reform advocate or a family member who has experienced the American “justice” system. But I bet you have heard the term “incarceration” for sure! While I’m personally not a fan of the term decarceration, I am a firm believer in the underlying reasons this term has been coined.

The United States has a reputation throughout the world as the “Incarceration Nation.” We have approximately 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s prison population. We are also one of the few countries that sentences juveniles to life in prison. (There has recently been some case law overturning that practice.)

While the American psyche has grown accustomed to the overuse of prisons, there has also been a bit of a wake-up call for families experiencing the justice system as it has ensnared more and more of their family and friends. I recently read Harvey Silverglate’s provocative book Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent. It is an eye opener about how many things in this country are illegal – so many, in fact, that no one really has any idea how many laws there are a person could be prosecuted for without even knowing they have broken the law. (Silverglate’s title implies that the average American could commit three felonies every day without even knowing it.)

(If you want to see an excellent chart of the state of incarceration in America today, visit this website.)

Don’t get me wrong. I am not some extremist advocating for the abolition of prisons. But I am screaming from the mountaintop about how our country has missed the mark on punishment and incapacitation. The origins of the prison population explosion have their root in the politically advantageous “truth in sentencing laws” of the 1980s, when most jurisdictions throughout the country abolished parole systems and mandated people serve approximately 85 percent of their prison term regardless of conduct, rehabilitation, or anything else. It is also suspicious that his happened at about the same time for-profit private prisons began to be used. Hmm.

While incarceration rates have started to decline, the infrastructure is still in place, mainly the prison industrial complex and their lobbies who argue for the status quo while they contribute tens of millions of dollars in their lobbying efforts. Not to mention, it’s still a great sound bite for a politician to opine about their tough-on-crime platform.

While incapacitation has been overused, the emphasis on correctional treatment has been reduced and academic research has concluded crime rates have not significantly decreased in light of the billions of taxpayer dollars being spent on a yearly basis. What is even more disturbing is how the private corrections industry has expanded into all kinds of peripheral services such as telephone, video visitation and transportation – for which inmates and their families pay handsomely. Even local governments rely on these sources of revenue, along with federal government contracts to house immigration prisoners.

It is hard to say if the corner we have turned will continue to trend further but there are a lot of forces behind the scenes fighting to maintain the status quo. Most people will eventually be released from prison. So to truly make communities safer there must be a greater emphasis on treatment as well as developing more alternative diversionary programs such as residential (halfway in/halfway out) centers and day reporting centers, which include both training and treatment. There are dire lifetime collateral consequences for a conviction and these programs can work in conjunction with drug, mental health and veteran’s courts to avoid the stigma prior to the vicious cycle of arrest, release and repeat!

If you’d rather see some of these same points made in a compelling video, here it is:

Jack Donson