Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

The Incarceration Nation

By Victoria SulenskiPublished November 9, 2014

Currently, the United States has 5% of the world's population but 22% of the world's prisoners. Meanwhile, as crime decreases each year, incarceration increases, with a large percentage of the prison population consisting of racial minorities. Prison policy and racial disparities within the justice system need to be scrutinized.

By Victoria Sulenski, 11/9/2014

            Throughout U.S. history, marginalized groups have faced countless issues pertaining to discrimination and stigmatization. One pressing and current issue is the current incarceration rates, particularly of minorities, in America. I am surprised this issue has not received more attention from activists and policymakers alike.

            The United States has the highest incarceration rates in the world. Americans make up 5% of the world's population but 22% of the world's prisoners. Are Americans more aggressive and more likely to commit crimes than other people throughout the world? The Uniform Crime Reports by the FBI and National Crime Victimization Survey both report downward trends in crime over the last few decades. Incarceration has increased despite this decrease in activity. Clearly something is not consistent here.

            One clarifying factor is that America has high rates of policing and punishment, which tend to disproportionately target minorities such as black Americans and Latinos. A recent Gallup poll survey indicated that 50% of black Americans believe they are imprisoned for racial reasons, whereas 19% of white respondents believed this is why black inmates are incarcerated. Discriminatory policies such as "stop and frisk" in New York encourage police officers to engage in racial profiling to determine if a patron is carrying a concealed weapon. This is based on the subjective suspicions of officers to ensure the safety of themselves and others. Black American residents are eight times as likely than whites to be stopped: in New York City, 16.9% of the black residents, 8.1% of Latino residents, and 2% of white residents are stopped. Yet as this practice continues, diminishing returns occur signifying that as more of these stops occur, fewer guns are found on individuals. These disparities translate directly to prison rates. Prison statistics indicate that for every white prisoner, there are 6 black and 3 Latino inmates.

The greater disparity occurs when considering punishments for different types of crimes. For example, the punitive element of the "war on drugs" has led to trends in incarcerating black Americans more often. Although black drug user rates are only slightly higher than white drug use rates, black imprisonment rates are much higher than whites. Among juveniles, black drug use is actually much lower than that of white users, but arrests of black youth for drug-related crimes are much higher. Media coverage only further contributes to these inconsistences. Coverage focuses more on crimes least likely to occur. Whites are more likely than black Americans or Latinos to be portrayed as victims of crime. Unsurprisingly, whites are overrepresented as victims of crime. These inconsistencies are critical, for media coverage influences the public's opinions and fears, as well as perceptions and stereotypes of criminal behavior, crime frequency, and likelihood of victimization.

            The use of public policy to address these discriminatory outcomes and disparities needs to be considered. Current imprisonment rates are a function of punishment practices and retention in these corrective facilities, not crime itself. America has recently become much harsher on crime through the creation of higher penalties, stricter sentencing guidelines, incentives for police drug arrests, and focused surveillance of poor minority neighborhoods. This is especially true for drug crimes, where policy intervention is most needed. In fact, many racial disparities are being researched in attempts to hopefully determine causation and propose solutions through the introduction of the Justice Integrity Act. This act is aimed at creating a five-year pilot program of advisory groups that will examine racial disparities at each stage of the criminal justice system. The act itself has been referred to the Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice. Unfortunately until further action occurs, these issues still remain.

            When $63 billion is spent each year on incarceration despite decreasing crime rates, the social implications of current crime policies needs to be taken into account. When members of disadvantaged groups are consistently targeted and arrested, they are banned from receiving many services such as public housing, food stamps, and even access to the vote.

Due to their record, minorities face discrimination in both employment and educational opportunities. As a result, racial minorities, poor individuals, and all prisoners are put in or are kept in an inferior position in society. They are stigmatized by their situation, face unemployment, and a vicious cycle of inequality is created. Without opportunities to better themselves, prisoners, especially targeted minorities, face insurmountable challenges to mobility. A lack of systematic rehabilitation programs only exacerbates this problem, as 70% of impoverished black Americans are likely to return to prison. With a lack of access to proper education and job opportunities, these individuals become impoverished or worsen their situation due to their poverty. They therefore resort to illegal activities to make money and end up in prison yet again.

            When black Americans make up 40% of the prison population but only represent 13% of the national population, incarceration policy becomes a civil rights issue. Policy reform on these issues needs to consider the racial disparities that exist and police targeting practices occurring. These rates do not merely reflect overall crime rates, but a deep cultural stigmatization of minorities continuing throughout the structure of the justice system. The role of police officers should be to maintain public safety, rather than to target and punish people in a discriminatory fashion. Individuals facing discrimination and imprisonment should be able to live as citizens, rather than suspects and fugitives within the criminal "justice" system.