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Mass Incarceration: An Immediate Problem

Mass Incarceration: An Immediate Problem

By Camelia Patron


The system is broken. We need to fix it. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, America holds the most inmates out of any other country in the world. We hold 500, 000 more inmates than the country with the second largest incarceration population. If you incarcerated the entire city of Houston, Texas, you would have our prison population, and as someone who lived in Houston TX, I can vouch for it being a huge city. It seems like everyone you ask has a different reason for the outrages incarceration rate. Some account it to weed being illegal, others say its the lack of regulation for prosecutors. However, there is a fundamental error in the way our system functions, and the only way to fix it is with a new system.

Bruce Prichart Western, a sociologist and professor of sociology at Columbia University and Harvard, explains there were two primary waves of prison reform in the 20th century. The first wave came due to the civil rights movement, as a lack of legislation to sentencing standards were especially discriminatory towards African Americans and lenient towards whites. Reformers criticized the lack of sentencing standards in the 1960s for its case-by-case decisions; it was not transparent or predictable. These reforms sought to change the sentencing standards to make practices fairer and more predictable. However, in the mid-80s, sociology professors Shannon and Uggen, who have prior research in crime and incarceration, explain the Reagan administration dismantled advancements made in the 1960s in prisons and pushed for reform to the penal system that included “tough on crime” and anti-drug sentiments.

These sentiments created pieces of legislation that became critical factors in the rise of mass incarceration. “tough on crime” policies created mandatory minimums that require a defendant convicted of certain crimes to serve along minimum time in prison. Three strike laws require 25-year minimum sentencing to anyone convicted of their third felony. Truth-in-sentencing laws require people convicted of a crime to serve at least 85% of the average sentence. Politicians created “life without the possibility of parole” laws as an alternative to the death penalty and to apply to more convictions Removing the War on Drugs and “tough on crime” policies of the 1970s will not completely solve mass incarceration, but implementing a new system of convictions could drastically reduce it. Harsh sentencing created by the war on drugs is not the leading factor in fueling mass incarceration. According to Clare Foran, an editor at the fact-based and highly acclaimed magazine The Atlantic, “If everyone in America currently held for a drug-related offense in state and federal prison were released, that would reduce those prison populations by approximately 20 percent.”

A large portion of the people incarcerated is there due to a violent crime. These are the convicts that society tends to be the least accepting of releasing out into society. However, if America wants to solve the problem of mass incarceration, we should be looking at violent crimes. As discussed by the Prison Policy Initiative,

“As lawmakers and the public increasingly agree that past policies have led to unnecessary incarceration, it is time to consider policy changes that go beyond the low-hanging fruit of “non-non-nons” – people convicted of non-violent, non-serious, non-sexual offenses…The data supports changing our responses to some of the crimes that scare people most: people convicted of sexual assault and homicide are actually among the least likely to re-offend after release. People convicted of homicide are the least likely to be re-arrested, and those convicted of rape or sexual assault have re-arrest rates roughly 30-50% lower than people convicted of larceny or motor vehicle theft. More broadly, people convicted of any violent offense are less likely to be re-arrested in the years after release than those convicted of property, drug, or public order offenses. Yet people convicted of violent offenses often face decades of incarceration.”

The system amplifies the large percentage of violent offenses due to “more than 90 percent of criminal convictions are resolved through a plea agreement,” according to John Pfaff, a law professor at Fordham University in New York. Plea agreement. Plea deals can provide a lesser sentence to a defendant facing a hefty charge, but could also be used to threaten a defendant with a greater sentence in order to pressure them into pleading guilty. According to the Marshall project, a nonprofit/nonpartisan line journalism group, “95% of plea bargains are worked out behind closed doors with no legislation limiting the prosecutors.” Defendants that agree to a plea agreement never see a fair trial. Furthermore, those 95 % of Plea Bargains that are worked out behind closed doors often have no third party, like a judge, overseeing the plea agreement.

So what do we do? Removing the War on Drugs and “tough on crime” policies of the 1970s will not completely solve mass incarceration, but implementing a new system of convictions could drastically reduce it. Even if federal politicians eliminated all the harsh convictions, the focus should be on how the state prisons run. As given by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, an independent federal government agency, state prisons hold about 87 percent of U.S. inmates. Over the past decade, California has made great strides in decreasing its mass incarceration. They created Assembly Bill 109 that addressed overcrowding in their state prisons “by most offenders convicted of non-serious, non-violent, and non-sexual crimes (known as triple-non-offenses) with no serious, violent, or sexual crimes appearing in their criminal records, now serve their sentences in county jail or under probation supervision rather than in state prison.” California changed more convictions in their state to parole as the default. They also made, “most parole violators …not eligible to be sent to prison unless they are convicted of a new, prison- eligible felony. Instead, parole violators now serve short stays (no more than six months) in county jails or face other local sanctions.” They also passed to reduce the penalties of drug and property offense by classifying them as misdemeanors and no longer felonies, which significantly reduced the jail population. Also, “The passage of Prop 36 in 2012, which relaxed the state’s 1994 “three strikes” law and allowed inmates to be resentenced if their third strike was not serious or violent, also brought down the prison population.” The legislation decreased the incarceration rate along with the number of people incarcerated while not negatively affecting crime rates, an effect many citizens are concerned about when making prison reform. Changing the system that fuels mass incarceration is a step in the right direction. States around the country could follow California’s lead in changing the system by getting rid of the harsh and discriminatory legislation that the Regan administration created with the War on Drugs and Tough on Crime sentiments. Then one day, states could also repeal the harsh conviction given to those accused of a violent crime.

Our current prison sentencing system is fueling mass incarceration in the United States. Previous legislation made through “tough on crime” and War on Drugs ideologies created harsh convictions on defendants. A lack of regulatory legislation for prosecutors fuels a tremendous amount of plea deals that accounts to high conviction rates when compounded with legislation from the 1980s and 1990s. In order to resolve this discrimination, our prison system needs to reform past legislation and create a new system to combat the sentencing that has burdened the nation for the past four decades.

About the author: I am someone who loves to learn. I love politics and international affairs, as well as comedy, acting, and art. I spend my free time doing makeup or on JSTOR. 

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