Mass incarceration disproportionately affects the poor and people of color

By Nafina Raha

The United States makes up about five percent of the global population. Despite this small sliver of the human race living in our country, the U.S. holds nearly 25 percent of the entire world’s prison population, according to the World Prison Population List. Yes, 25 percent.

Mass incarceration has a long history in America, initially beginning as a form of retribution by southern states in response to the abolition of slavery in the 19th century, which took away the basis of their economies. However, the term “mass incarceration” became popularized in the late 20th century in response to the massive boom in the U.S.’s incarcerated population. The number of imprisoned Americans exploded during Ronald Reagan’s presidency from his “war on drugs,” a war specifically targeted to be detrimental to poor Black communities in retaliation to the desegregation movement of the 60s. 

“When Reagan took office in 1980, the total prison population was 329,000, and when he left office eight years later, the prison population had essentially doubled, to 627,000,” the Brennan Center for Justice reports. 

Since 1970, America’s incarcerated population has increased by 700 percent. There are 2.3 million people in prison today, a statistic that far outpaces both population growth and crime rates. This massive rise in incarceration has historically hit communities of color the hardest. People of color were disproportionately incarcerated at the beginning of the mass incarceration era under Reagan, and remain so today. 

According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), one in every three Black boys born today will go to prison at some point in his lifetime, along with one in every six Latino boys. Meanwhile, only one in every seventeen white boys will experience the same throughout his life. Now, women constitute the fastest growing prison population in the country, with 219,000 women in prisons and jails currently placed throughout the U.S. according to the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI). 

PPI reports that over 600,000 people enter prisons per year, but people go to jails 10.6 million times per year. This means that many people in jails haven’t yet been convicted of any crime. Hundreds of thousands of people are locked up without an actual conviction, oftentimes because they cannot afford to pay bail. 

When people cannot afford to pay their bail, they are left incarcerated until their court date, which often takes a very prolonged period of time, even years. Being locked up, even without any real conviction, often has negative implications for detainees’ lives. They could lose their homes, jobs, and connection to families simply for being arrested and being unable to pay bail. 

“The cash bail system was originally designed to ensure that people return to court as their case progresses, but it has morphed into a for-profit system of wealth-based incarceration,” according to the ACLU. 

The ACLU also reports that there are double the amount of people incarcerated in local jails awaiting trial (and thus presumed innocent because they have not yet been convicted) than in the entire federal prison system. This means that a good percentage of people in jail may not be guilty of anything. 

So what about life after prison or jail time? According to the ACLU, 650,000 people nationwide return to their communities from prison each year, and have a lot to face when they return to regular society. For example, people who have been incarcerated for decades were not a part of general society for these stretches of time, and thus are released into a world that has completely changed from the one they initially left. New technologies may have been developed that rule the way people communicate with each other, or the way that they pay for groceries, or the way that they get from place to place. Popular culture experiences many shifts over the years, and oftentimes, after a long prison sentence, people returning into society find the world they knew completely painted over by new norms, slang, and ways of thinking. In addition to this, many find it difficult to reunify with their family after decades spent separated. Aside from these changes, formerly incarcerated people are also up against the law when they return home. 

“People living with a conviction record face nearly 50,000 federal, state, and local legal restrictions–often referred to as collateral consequences–that consistently impair them from freely pursuing the American dream,” the ACLU reports. 

After having spent a good portion of their lives incarcerated, these people often have no money to fall back on for basic survival. This leads them to fall into debt simply to get by, which creates another load of financial issues for them. These laws that target and limit the abilities of formerly incarcerated people create a kind of legalized prejudice and discrimination against them. The ACLU reports that almost 75 percent of formerly incarcerated people remain unemployed even a year after their release. 

These so-called “collateral consequences” also contribute to the re-arrest of formerly incarcerated people, as they are denied the education, employment, training, and healthcare necessary to regain their livelihood and reintegrate themselves into society. This lack of resources then puts them back into the criminal justice system, throwing them back into the prison cycle. 

“At least 1 in 4 people who go to jail will be arrested again within the same year–often those dealing with poverty, mental illness, and substance abuse disorders, whose problems only worsen with incarceration,” according to the PPI. 

The PPI also reports that a massive amount of people are reincarcerated not for a new crime, but instead for “technical violations” of their probation or parole. This goes to show how probation often leads to unnecessary incarceration because it is structured to detect missteps and mistakes instead of rewarding success. 

The criminal justice system essentially punishes people for being poor, most notably through the astronomical cost of money bail. Impoverished people are much less likely to be able to pay bail, and are thus left in pretrial detention without conviction for prolonged periods of time. The ACLU reports that Black people are subjected to higher rates of pre-trial detention than white arrestees with similar charges or crimes committed. This can often be attributed to the fact that the Black community in general has been systematically suppressed, and are therefore impacted by poverty at much higher rates than white people. 

In the U.S., poverty and race are directly correlated due to the institutionalized racism that is woven into the structure of the nation. As a result, people of color face much higher rates of poverty than white people, and are therefore disproportionately overrepresented in the nation’s incarcerated population. The racial disparity is most stark among Black Americans, the racial group that is by far the most policed in America. Black people make up 40 percent of the incarcerated population in the U.S., despite the fact that they make up only 13 percent of the American population, according to the NAACP.

“Racial bias keeps more people of color in prisons and on probation than ever before,” reports the ACLU. “With convictions disproportionately affecting poor people and people of color, these sentences are also exacerbating extreme racial disparities in the criminal justice system and tearing vulnerable communities apart.”

All in all, the nation’s prison system costs taxpayers $80 billion per year. This astronomical amount of money that is being used towards keeping people incarcerated, oftentimes without conviction, and harming communities should be used in better ways, and invested into more constructive forms of crime control. Resources such as mental health rehabilitation, substance abuse counseling, programs for impoverished communities, and comprehensive education can all improve safety and lower crime rates in far better ways than incarceration ever has. 

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