Understanding America’s Sky-High Incarceration Rates

Man's hand inside a prison cellAmerica incarcerates more people than any other country in the world. That’s a hard fact, and the statistics prove it. Only 5 percent of the global population lives in the United States. But a massive 25 percent of the worldwide prison population is in the same country. Despite crime rates being at historic lows, the incarceration rate is still much higher compared to 30 or 40 years ago.

If not for the likes of bail bonds in Raleigh, N.C. and elsewhere, the prison population might be much larger. Understanding America’s sky-high incarceration rates, however, escapes both commoners and even several criminal justice experts.

A Few Truths

Some people might think that crime in the U.S. is pretty rampant for the incarceration rate to be as high as it is. The truth isn’t exactly like that, but it’s easy to understand. The U.S. imprisons more types of criminal offenders, including non-violent ones, and keeps them locked up for longer periods of time. Also, there exist the concepts of ‘truth in sentencing’ and ‘mandatory minimum’ which limit discretion in sentencing and release.

Many analysts also point to the war on drugs. America is known to specifically target people for dealing and possession. As a result, prisons fill up due to drug-related sentences. This is notwithstanding the tendency of federal courts to levy impossibly harsh sentences on people convicted of even the most minor offenses. True enough, during the last 30 or 40 years, laws on tougher sentencing have been passed.

Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to former President Barrack Osama, reinforces these truths. She cites that courtrooms often put Americans in jail with sentences not commensurate to the nature of the transgressions. For instance, many troubled young people are tried as adults, when all they need is some form of intensive, constructive help. Often, people serve jail time merely for not being able to afford a fine or bail bond.

Experts believe that it’ll take as long as 90 years for the U.S. prison population to decrease to 1980 levels. Until drastic and much-needed changes in the criminal justice system are made, millions of Americans are in danger of living behind bars for even the most minor offenses.

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