It’s Time to End Mass Incarceration

It’s Time to End Mass Incarceration

Locking up more and more people for longer and longer won’t make us safer.


The United States is the wealthiest country in the world, but it also jails more people than any other nation, including China and Russia. Over 2.3 million adults are currently in American prisons and jails.

On a per capita basis, the United States still stands far above all other nations in locking people behind bars. The incarceration rate has shot up 500 percent over the past four decades.

But why? We’re spending billions of dollars on incarceration, why aren’t we safer?

We explore the scope and source of mass incarceration in our new short film, Sentencing Reform: Part I–The Power of Fear. It’s the first in a forthcoming series that will highlight the symptoms and ultimate solutions to the ongoing mass incarceration epidemic.

Mass incarceration impacts different groups of Americans very differently. The incarceration rate of black men is seven times that of white men. One in six Latino men will go to prison in their lifetimes. For the same offenses, black men received sentences that were on average 19 percent longer than for white men.

The racial disparities are absolutely inescapable, no matter how you slice the data. And race was a key driver in creating the problem.

Politicians routinely exploit fears of crime, the inner city and minorities to fuel their election campaigns. As we show in the film, the ads often feature black men, including George H.W. Bush’s infamous Willie Horton ad.

The media also got in on the act. Blacks are two and a half times more likely, and Latinos five and a half times more likely, to be presented as criminals in the media than whites. This nonstop focus on black and Latino suspects fuels suspicions of entire communities.

The standard media narrative is that blacks and Latinos are portrayed as perpetrators and whites as their victims. As we show in the film, even white criminals are portrayed more sympathetically.

The toxic combination of fear-mongering politicians and sensational, stereotyping media coverage has driven bad policies that lock up greater numbers of people. Today the United States spends $81 billion each year on incarceration. Millions of Americans are disenfranchised, and one in 10 prisoners are serving sentences of longer than a decade.

And yet, study after study shows that we’re not any safer for it.

Meanwhile, 40 percent of inmates have at least one diagnosable mental illness, and 65 percent of inmates have a substance abuse addiction. Locking up mentally ill people for long terms doesn’t make us safer, and neither will locking up those suffering from addiction.

The 1994 crime bill signed by President Clinton included the harsh “three strikes” requirement that flooded American prisons. The bill even included $10 billion for building new prisons that would soon be filled to capacity. More recently, cities like New York instituted policies to systematically target young black and Latino men for enforcement.

These are bad policies, and they simply don’t work. Thankfully, there are better ways. Real solutions exist that are fact-based and tested.

In our upcoming series, we’ll explore sentencing reforms that can make our nation safer and more just. We hope you’ll stay tuned.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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