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Alarming Rates of Incarceration in the US

Americans are always taught that the US is the freest nation on Earth. America has freedoms under the Bill of Rights like many other nations, but how can we measure freedom quantifiably? What if the idea is simplified to mean those who are free citizens versus those who are imprisoned? It’s basic and imprecise, but the statement ultimately can’t be denied.

When examining this measure it may be shocking to learn that the incarceration rate in the United States is higher than anywhere in the world. In May of 2011 there were 743 inmates per 100,000 of the national population. The next highest rating is Rwanda with 595 per 100,000. And that’s not all.

In shear number of prisoners China just narrowly surpasses the US in 2011 only if the 650,000 people held in Chinese administrative detentions are counted. If you do not count these administrative detainees who are often non-criminal political activists, astonishingly the US has a much larger inmate total than the semi-communistic country with a population in 2011 that was 77% greater than the US.


A quick way to test the severity of the US penal system is by asking this question: would you rather be a citizen in Louisiana or Iran? What if you consider that Louisiana has an incarceration rate that is almost 5 times that of Iran? Frighteningly 1 in 86 adults, and worse still, 1 in 14 black males are behind bars in Louisiana.

It seems that Americans have become increasingly concerned with safety, causing state and federal legislatures to become obsessed with increasing incarceration rates. All the hard work and worrying has created laws and policies that have increased prison populations by 700 percent since the early 70’s.

It therefore seems that Americans are allowed to exercise their “greater amounts of freedom” while being contradictorily imprisoned for more reasons. Unfortunately one factor that can help to explain this contradiction is the length of prison sentences in the US, which far exceed those of any other developed nation.

Political figures tend to boast about the falling arrest and crime rates. Normally these decreasing figures would mean a decrease in prison population, but inmates released in 2009 spent a 36 percent longer time in prison than offenders released in 1990.


This trend is occurring in the American penal system because of mandated sentencing laws like the 3 strikes law, and an increase in life sentences. Many states have also abolished parole, or now have laws that prevent parole boards from releasing low-risk prisoners before they have served 85% of their sentence.

Similar to the 3 strikes law, other mandated sentencing laws have dramatically increased prison sentences for low-level criminals. A 2010 case put Jamel Dossie, a very low level crack dealer, away for five years. The presiding judge, Judge Gleeson, had his hands tied since the mandatory drug sentencing could not be altered by a judge who earnestly disagreed with the outcome of the trial.

In his opinion Judge Gleeson said, “This case illustrates how mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases distort the sentencing process…They strip defendants of the due process rights,” and also that, “too many, nonviolent, low level, substance-abusing defendants like Jamel Dossie ‘lose their claim to a future’…because lengthy mandatory prison terms sweep reasonable, innovative, and promising alternatives to incarceration off the table.”

Twenty years ago Louisiana’s prisons were overcrowded. The state decided it would build more prisons rather than reform its system. Sheriffs all over the state rushed to build the needed prisons since it would create jobs and very lucrative incentives for incarcerating people. As a result prison populations doubled since 1990.

The former general counsel for Louisiana Department of Corrections, Richard Crane, said, "If the sheriffs hadn't built those extra spaces, we'd either have to go to the Legislature and say, 'Give us more money,' or we'd have to reduce the sentences, make it easier to get parole and commutation -- and get rid of people who shouldn't be here."


In California, the state with the current highest number incarcerated, overcrowding has also become a huge problem. Similar to the 1990 situation in Louisiana, the Supreme Court ordered a population reduction in California’s prisons in 2010. That year California had 151,036 prisoners in its 33 adult institutions. Since the order, 30,090 have been released or transferred from these state prisons.  This reduction has allowed the California state correctional facilities to function at approximately 152% of its current design capacity.


It isn’t hard to imagine how much pressure is placed on a system that has essentially no room for new convicts. Instead of reviewing policies that have led to this overcrowding, prisoners are being shuffled around to alleviate the dangerously unhealthy crowded prisons. County jails, for example, will see 250 more inmates a year than what had been previously projected. Among this increase are violent offenders even though the state has promised to keep violent offenders in state prisons where they have the proper facilities to deal with them.

The 2010 order has also caused 5,800 inmates to be shipped to private prisons outside of California, increasing this total number to 15,000. All of this raises a chilling question: what if California takes a page out of Louisiana’s recent history and builds more facilities so as to be operating below design capacity?

Besides mirroring the ghastly results in Louisiana, California would probably greatly increase the overall country’s state correctional facility budget. Expenditures on state correctional facilities have quadrupled in the past twenty years.  In a comprehensive analysis of 40 participant US states, Christian Henrich and Ruth Delaney found that taxpayers were paying an unnecessarily high $39 billion dollars for state correctional facilities. This high total also includes $5.4 billion more than is actually reflected in the states’ budgets.

Henrich and Delaney’s conclusions on how to reduce this extraneous spending indicates that, “The only way for states to decrease their prison budgets substantially is to reduce the inmate population and then reduce the operating capacity and related costs,” and, “the largest impact on prison budgets comes from changing sentencing and release policies.”


So I ask again: if America is the freest nation in the world, why do we lock up more people than any other country? Why do we have longer sentences than any developed nation? Why are we spending so much on a prodigal institution during this era of governmental budget tightening? And why are private prisons becoming so in vogue? Well at least this last question seems to have an obvious answer.