The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. With over 2.2 million people currently in the nation’s prisons and jails — a 500% increase in the last 40 years — our country now imprisons more of its citizens than any other country. So, why is this? How did we get here, and what can be done to lower incarceration?
The War on Drugs
One significant factor contributing to high incarceration rates in the United States is the so-called “war on drugs.” This term describes the government’s effort to crack down on illegal drug use and drug trafficking beginning in the 1970s. The government spearheaded aggressive anti-drug campaigns and increased funding for drug enforcement agencies. Additionally, penalties for drug offenses were intensified.
As a result of these policies, thousands of people have been incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses over the past several decades. Data shows that more than half of all federal prisoners are serving time for drug offenses.
Privatization of Prisons
In 1980, there were just over 300,000 people incarcerated in America. By 2020, that number had grown to over 2 million. A big reason for this increase is the privatization of prisons. Private prisons are for-profit entities that contract with state and federal governments to house inmates. And, since their bottom line is profits, they have a vested interest in keeping as many people behind bars as possible. This has led to longer sentences and more prisons being built, further exacerbating the problem.
In 1994, California enacted one of the first “three-strikes” laws, which mandated long prison sentences for those with prior convictions. While this law was initially aimed at serious violent offenders, it quickly morphed into something that also ensnared nonviolent offenders. As a result, many people who would have otherwise received much shorter sentences or probation are now serving lengthy prison terms.
The Impact of Incarceration on Society
Incarceration has a far-reaching impact on society, both in terms of financial and human costs. The economic cost of incarceration is borne by taxpayers, who foot the bill for prison operations and inmate care.
In addition, incarcerated individuals cannot work and contribute to the economy, leading to long-term unemployment and poverty. The emotional cost of incarceration is borne by families and loved ones, who must deal with the stress and anxiety of having a loved one behind bars. In addition, incarcerated individuals often suffer from mental health problems due to their experiences, which can lead to addiction and other criminal activity.
Consequently, incarceration profoundly impacts all aspects of society, and efforts to reduce its adverse effects are essential.
Lower Incarceration Through Alternative Means
The United States justice system is in dire need of reform. Too often, people are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses, and the conditions in American prisons are unacceptable. Fortunately, there are alternatives to incarceration that can be just as effective at reforming individuals and being more humane.
Diversion programs are designed to keep people out of the formal justice system altogether. These programs exist on both the state and federal levels, including drug courts, mental health courts, and veterans’ courts. Diversion programs are typically only available to first-time offenders or those with minor criminal records.
Treatment and rehabilitation programs
One of the most common alternatives to incarceration is treatment and rehabilitation programs for offenders with substance abuse or mental health problems. These programs can provide the resources and support needed to help offenders get their lives back on track and avoid future criminal activity. These programs are often more effective and less expensive than traditional prison sentences.
Restorative justice focuses on repairing the harm caused by crime rather than punishing the offender. This approach is more effective than traditional criminal justice approaches in reducing recidivism rates and restoring relationships between victims and offenders. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution to addressing crime, exploring alternatives to incarceration is essential in creating a more just and effective criminal justice system.
Probation is an alternative to incarceration that allows a person to remain in the community under the supervision of a probation officer. During that time, the offender must meet certain conditions, such as staying employed, paying restitution, attending counseling, and regularly checking in with their probation officer. If the offender violates any of the requirements of their probation, they may be sent to prison.
Home detention is another alternative to incarceration that allows an individual to stay in their home rather than be imprisoned. Those on home detention must adhere to specific rules, such as curfews, meeting regularly with their probation officer, and wearing an electronic monitor. Home detention is typically only used for nonviolent offenders with strong ties to their community.
Provide more support for ex-offenders
When released from prison, offenders often face an uphill battle regarding reintegrating into society. They may have difficulty finding jobs, housing, or necessities like food and clothing. This can lead to desperation and, ultimately, crime. We must provide people with the necessary resources to succeed once released from prison to reduce recidivism rates. This could include job training, housing assistance, and substance abuse treatment. By making sure that ex-offenders have the tools they need to stay on the straight and narrow, we can reduce the chances that they will end up back in prison.
How To Start Lowering Incarceration
There are several other ways to reduce the prison population before individuals come into contact with law enforcement and the criminal justice system.
Improve access to education and job training
Investing in jobs and education is one way to reduce our prison population. A lack of education and job opportunities is one of the main reasons people end up in prison. If we invest in programs that provide people with the education and training they need to find good jobs, we can reduce crime and keep people out of prison.
Invest in Alternatives to Incarceration
Studies have shown that alternatives to incarceration—such as drug treatment programs and probationary services—are much more effective than imprisonment in reducing crime rates. And yet, these alternatives are woefully underfunded. With more investment, we could keep more people out of prison while still protecting public safety.
Banning the Box on Job Applications
Many people with criminal records face significant obstacles when trying to find employment. One way to reduce these barriers is by “banning the box.” This refers to the practice of removing the question about criminal history from job applications. By doing so, individuals with records are given a fair chance to compete for jobs based on their qualifications rather than their past.
Lower Incarceration by Decriminalizing Drug Use and Possession
Another way to reduce our incarcerated population is by decriminalizing drug use and possession. Decriminalization would save taxpayers billions of dollars each year and go a long way in reducing racial disparities in our criminal justice system.
Reducing the prison population is a complex issue—but it is one that we must address if we want to create a more just society. By decriminalizing minor offenses, improving prison conditions, and investing in alternatives to incarceration, we can move away from our current system of mass incarceration and towards one that is more humane and effective.
How Julota Can Help Lower Incarceration
To divert individuals from jail pre-arrest, it’s important to have access to certain information, such as if they have a treatment team or mental health issues they may be struggling with. One major complication of this is accessing this type of private information. Fortunately, Julota can help.
Julota is a simple and accessible platform that allows police and mental health professionals to access data or update records using their own devices – even out in the field.
By making it easy for police and mental health professionals to collect data using their own devices, Julota is revolutionizing how information is shared between these two important groups. In the past, information sharing was often complicated and time-consuming, which made it difficult for police and mental health professionals to work together effectively. But with Julota, that’s all changed.
More importantly, Julota is compliant with all security and privacy regulations, such as HIPAA, CFR-42 and CJIS, so there’s no concern about data being misused.