by Coulter Ebbert
It is widely known that while the United States represents approximately 4.4% of the world’s population, it houses roughly 22% of the world’s prisoners. Within the past 30 years, the inmate population within the United States has skyrocketed from numbers in the hundreds of thousands to a population well into the millions. With roughly 70,000 or 37.8% of the nearly 185,500 inmates in the federal prison system alone being African American, 2,707 or 1.5% being Asian, 4,096 or 2.2% being Native American, and 108,410 or 58.4% being White, it is clear that the races of inmates in the Federal System alone do not accurately represent their proportions within the overall population. While some may explain this phenomenon by citing to statistics suggesting that the rates of incarceration are proportionate to the breakdown of crimes committed by members of particular race classifications, it still remains clear that regardless of the reason, the United States has a lot of people in prison.
Avlana K. Eisenberg, author of Incarceration Incentives in the Decarceration Era does an excellent job in recounting the increase in the United States’ prison population:
The United States prison population experienced an explosion beginning in the 1970s, and the United States currently incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than any other country in the world. There were approximately 200,000 people incarcerated in the [*81] United States in 1973, and the prison population surpassed 2 million in 2002. During this time, the per capita incarceration rate soared from 100 per 100,000 to more than 750 per 100,000. At its peak in 2009, the U.S. prison population exceeded 2.4 million, with more than 1% of the country’s adult population behind bars. The phenomenon of mass incarceration has disproportionately affected men and people of color, with black males experiencing the highest rates of incarceration; approximately one in nine black men age twenty to thirty-four is currently incarcerated, and one in three black men will at some point spend time in jail or prison.
In reflecting on the prison population rising throughout the 1970’s, 1980’s, and 1990’s, commentators and scholarly figures hypothesis as to the cause of the increase. As Carl Takei discussed in his article, changes in law enforcement priorities and sentencing policies resulted in more convictions and longer sentences. Takei accounts for the increased incarceration rate:
At both state and federal levels, legislators responded [to the perceived urgency of the War on Drugs] by approving increasingly harsh sentencing laws, including mandatory minimum sentences, “Truth in Sentencing,” Three Strikes laws, and stiff sentencing guidelines. The same dynamics led legislators to ramp up the size and aggressiveness of the police presence in cities – particularly in Black and Brown neighborhoods. Both liberals and conservatives supported many of these changes – including the shift from indeterminate sentencing to the use of sentencing guidelines, which liberals incorrectly believed would reduce racial disparities and biases in sentencing.
The war on drugs, the “tough on crime” mindset, and changes in criminal law such as mandatory minimums and three strike policies seem to be common factors in explaining the increase of the United States’ prison populations. Other experts blame the increased population of prisons on profit driven incentives, as Avlana K. Eisenberg explains:
It is common to attribute the rise of mass incarceration in the United States to the profit-seeking private sector and the emergence of a “prison-industrial complex.” As the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of trade unions in the United States, has suggested: “Our nation’s profit-driven justice system is producing a level of mass incarceration that is anything but just.” Some private corporations do advocate for pro-incarceration policies, even describing prisons as a kind of “product” to be sold like “selling cars or real estate or hamburgers.” But suggesting that mass incarceration is solely the result of corporate greed paints an incomplete picture.
Although private prisons have, in the past, played a role in housing inmates on behalf of federal and state prison systems for a profit, the private prison industry has been on a steady decline within recent years. The Federal prison system has enacted plans which seek to reduce and ultimately phase out the federal government’s use of private prison companies to house federal inmates. A result of this plan being enacted to phase out private prison companies would be a decrease on lobbying in favor of strict sentencing guidelines more emphasis on reducing the amount of those imprisoned. A further driving factor for lowering the amount of those Americans incarcerated are the fiscal reproductions and demands of housing millions of men and women within these facilities.
While identifying causal factors in retrospect is important, it is much more difficult to develop solutions which will address the issues within the United States correctional system. Currently, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (“BOP”) maintains programs and classes within their facilities in the hopes that they may reduce recidivism and ultimately lower the population of inmates within the Prison system. The Federal Bureau of Prisons requires those incarcerated within the federal system who do not have a high school diploma, or an equivalent thereof, to complete an adult literacy program for a minimum of 240 instructional hours or until they receive their GED. Furthermore, the BOP requires non-English speaking inmates to take English classes so they may successfully speak English as a second language. The BOP also provides opportunities for inmates to learn trade skills through occupational training in the hopes that these marketable skills will aid inmates in finding work upon their release from prison, thus reducing their chances of reoffending. Reports indicate that those inmates who worked within prison industries or occupational training were 24% less likely to recidivate and 14% more likely to be gainfully employed after release from prison than other inmates. The BOP also has plans to revitalize and reform their Federal Halfway House programs, phase out the use of private prisons in the housing of federal inmates, and enact procedures which would help inmates maintain family connections while they are incarcerated and address mental health issues for inmates.
While, as discussed above, the population of those incarcerated had been on the rise within the recent decades, the BOP reports decrease within the Federal prison population. With the BOP reporting nearly 13,000 fewer inmates at the end of the 2016 fiscal year, one must wonder if the decrease is a result of the above-mentioned programs, or rather a change in the public perception of incarceration within our society. While there is little doubt that a plethora of Americans still abide by the “tough on crime” approach, many within the United States recognize and understand the fallacies of the War on Drugs and the idea of mandatory sentencing for such offenses in the least. As of 2017. Almost half, 80,585 or 46%, of the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ inmates are incarcerated because of drug related offenses. Many of those inmates locked up on drug related offenses may be classified as non-violent offenders who have received their sentences due to mandatory minimums passed by state and federal legislatures that judges must abide by.
It is important to note, that while it is absolutely vital to discuss and appreciate those steps which are taken to improve the lives of those already convicted and imprisoned, and to decrease recidivism rates, it is imperative that prevention measures are discussed and considered so as to prevent persons convicted of lesser crimes from being disproportionately sentenced and imprisoned. Two bills were introduced to Congress in October of 2017: S. 1917 – Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017; and S. 1933 – Smarter Sentencing Act. Both bills have received bipartisan support and aim to reform particular sentencing practices as well as provide necessary funding to programs in hopes to reduce recidivism rates.
The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 was introduced on October 4, 2017 by Republican Senator for Iowa, Charles Grassley. The Bill proposes provisions which would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for those convicted of nonviolent drug offenses, increase funding for BOP programs which seek to lower recidivism rates, and other such provisions which aim to challenge the corrections and sentencing issues we face in the United States.
The Smarter Sentencing Act of 2017 was introduced on October 5, 2017 by Republican Senator for Utah, Mike Lee. The Smarter Sentencing Act proposes to revitalize the manner in which Federal Judges may sentence those convicted of non-violent drug offences. This act will allow for these experienced judges to differentiate between those offenders who commit minor drug offenses and those offenders who commit serious drug offenses and sentence them accordingly without being constrained by outrageous or excessive required sentencing guidelines. Id.
Both of these bills were proposed in hopes of correcting the wrongs that plague the corrections system and the criminal justice system as a whole. Measures taken by the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the legislature give those who see the disparities within the corrections system hope that they may be addressed. If the current plateau and steady decrease of the prison population persists, it may be foreseeable that further action from the proper authorities may cause the population to continue to decrease.
- Michelle Ye Hee Lee, Does the United States really have 5 percent of the world’s population and one quarter of the world’s prisoners?, The Washington Post (Apr 30, 2015) https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2015/04/30/does-the-united-states-really-have-five-percent-of-worlds-population-and-one-quarter-of-the-worlds-prisoners/?utm_term=.1f81451a68a9
- Offenses Statistics, Federal Bureau of Prisons (Sep 23, 2017) https://www.bop.gov/about/statistics/statistics_inmate_rase.jsp
- Avlana K. Eisenberg, Incarceration Incentives in the Decarceration Era, 69 Vanderbilt L. Rev. 71, 80-81 (2016).
- Carl Takei, From Mass Incarceration to Mass Control, and Back Again: How Bipartisan Criminal Justice Reform May Lead to A For-Profit Nightmare, 20 U. Pa. J. L & Soc. Change 125, 131 (2017).
- Prison Reform: Reducing Recidivism by Strengthening the Federal Bureau of Prisons, United States Department of Archives (Mar 6, 2017) https://www.justice.gov/archives/prison-reform#recentandongoingreforms
- Federal Bureau of Prisons Program Fact Sheet, Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Oct 2017) https://www.bop.gov/about/statistics/docs/program_fact_sheet_20171102.pdf
- Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017, H.R. 1917, 115th Cong. (2017).
- Smarter Sentencing Act of 2017, H.R. 1933, 115th Cong. (2017).