America Has Become Incarceration Nation

by Marc Mauer, December 22, 2006


The United States has now become the world leader in its rate of incarceration, locking up its citizens at 5-8 times the rate of other industrialized nations.

Two remarkable developments in Washington in the past week highlight the extent to which the United States has become the land of mass incarceration.

First, the Supreme Court denied the appeal of Weldon Angelos for a first-time drug offense. Angelos was a 24-year-old Utah music producer with no prior convictions when he was convicted of three sales of marijuana in 2004. During these sales he possessed a gun, though there were no allegations that he ever used or threatened to use it. Under federal mandatory sentencing laws, the judge was required to sentence Angelos to five years on the first offense and 25 years each for the two subsequent offenses, for a total of 55 years in prison. In imposing sentence, Judge Paul Cassell, a leading conservative jurist, decried the sentencing policy as "unjust, cruel, and even irrational."

The Angelos decision came on the heels of a Bureau of Justice Statistics report finding that there are now a record 2.2 million Americans incarcerated in the nation's prisons and jails. These figures represent the continuation of a "race to incarcerate" that has been raging since 1972. With a 500 percent increase in the number of people in prison since then, the United States has now become the world leader in its rate of incarceration, locking up its citizens at 5-8 times the rate of other industrialized nations. The strict punishment meted out in the Angelos case and thousands of others explain much of the rapid increase in the prison population.

The composition of the prison population reflects the socioeconomic inequalities in society. Sixty percent of the prison population is African American and Latino, and if current trends continue, one of every three black males and one of every six Latino males born today can expect to go to prison at some point in his lifetime. The overall rates for women are lower, but the racial and ethnic disparities are similar and the growth rate of women's incarceration is nearly double that of men over the past two decades.

While the United States has a higher rate of violent crime than comparable nations, the substantial prison buildup since 1980 has resulted from changes in policy, not changes in crime. The "get tough" movement, which embraced initiatives designed to send more people to prison and to keep them for longer periods of time, contributed to massive prison construction and a corrections budget now totaling $60 billion annually. These policy changes included mandatory sentences that restrict judicial discretion while imposing "one size fits all" penalties, "three strikes and you're out" laws that allow life terms upon a third felony conviction, and the "war on drugs."

Drug policies have been responsible for a disproportionate share of the rise in the inmate population, with the 40,000 drug offenders in prison or jail in 1980 increasing to a half million today. A substantial body of research has documented that these laws have had virtually no effect on the drug trade, as measured by price or availability of drugs. Most of the drug offenders in prison are not the "kingpins" of the drug trade. Indeed, the low-level sellers who are incarcerated are rapidly replaced on the streets by others seeking economic gain.

While crime rates have been declining nationally for a decade, research to date demonstrates that expanded incarceration has, at best, been responsible for only a quarter of this decline. Other factors that played a key role include a strong economy in the 1990s that provided employment opportunities for low-skill workers, a marked decline in crack cocaine use and its associated violence by the early 1990s, and strategic community policing. New York City, which experienced a two-thirds reduction in homicides from 1990 to 2002, did so despite a one-third decline in its jail population during that period. And conversely, while Idaho led the nation with an astonishing 174 percent rise in its prison population, it nevertheless experienced a 14 percent rise in crime.

With a new Democratic Congress in place, there is hope that long-festering criminal justice policy inequities can finally be addressed. Long-time reform champions Reps. John Conyers, D-Mich., and Bobby Scott, D-Va., are poised to take over the chairmanships of the House Judiciary Committee and its Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security subcommittee, respectively. But we should be cautious in our expectations given the Democratic Party's record of complicity in endorsing "get tough" measures. Bill Clinton's 1994 crime bill, for example, was loaded with harsh sentencing provisions and $8 billion in new prison construction. Progressives would be wise to continue to build bipartisan support for criminal justice reform measures. In recent years this has led to alliances with conservative Senators Sam Brownback and Jeff Sessions who sponsored bills for prisoner reentry and crack cocaine sentencing reform respectively.

As we look to the new Congress, high on any reform agenda should be the following:

* Crack cocaine sentencing reform -- During the last 20 years, the federal sentencing laws for crack cocaine offenses have subjected thousands of low-level defendants to mandatory five- and 10-year prison terms, while exacerbating the racial dynamics of incarceration. More than 80 percent of the persons charged with these offenses are African Americans, who receive much stiffer terms than those meted out to powder cocaine defendants.

* Mandatory sentencing reform -- Congressional mandates to impose harsh sentences with no judicial input have created unfair and overly harsh penalties, and have been decried by the American Bar Association and Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, among many others.

* Racial impact statements -- Just as fiscal impact statements aid lawmakers in assessing the financial implications of sentencing policies, the preparation of racial impact assessments could provide similar benefits to policymakers. Had such assessments existed in 1986, we could have had a debate on the racial dynamics of the crack cocaine laws prior to their enactment, not 20 years later.

* Felon disenfranchisement reform -- Five million Americans could not participate in the November election due to a current or previous felony conviction. Laws that govern these practices are enacted by the states, but Congress has the authority to require uniform voting rules in federal elections. Legislation proposed by John Conyers in the House would require states to permit voting by any non-incarcerated person in federal elections, even if barred from participating in state elections.

Three decades of prison expansion have led to rates of imprisonment that are shameful for a democratic nation. Both public safety and community health would be better served through investments in policies that promote job creation, high school graduation and substance abuse treatment. It's time to reverse the race to incarcerate.


Marc Mauer is the executive director of The Sentencing Project and the author of "Race to Incarcerate" and co-editor of "Invisible Punishment" (both from The New Press).

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