22 April 2019
Mass Incarceration and Bail Reform
In 2016, the United States was the leading country for most people in prison with a staggering 2.2 million people behind bars. This is a 500% increase in the past 40 years (The Sentencing Project). It is claimed that the large increase of people being arrested are because of crime and violence increasing. In reality, it is because of new laws being put into effect year after year that put people who commit nonviolent crimes behind bars. America has a prison system problem that needs to be reformed by getting rid of incarceration for nonviolent, low level crimes, revising the bail system, invest more into cost-effective options other than incarceration such as drug treatment programs, and distinguish between people who are ready to re-enter society and those who continue to pose threats to public safety.
The War on Drugs was the “Big Bang” of mass incarceration. In 1980, there were 40,900 people incarcerated for drug related offenses. Today, the number of people incarcerated for drug related offenses has jumped to 450,345 people. Today, there are more people in prison for drug related offenses than there were people in prison for any crime in 1980(The Sentencing Project). There are many stories of teenagers, such as Reynolds Wintersmith Jr., being arrested for use and or possession of drugs who are being thrown in prison and are given longer sentences than adults who commit violent crimes such as rape and murder. Reynolds Wintersmith Jr. was a 19 year old who had no mother and no father and grew up his whole life in what some would call a drug house or a “dope house”. Wintersmith was arrested for selling cocaine and was given life without a chance for parole in 1994 at the age of 19.(ACLU) Wintersmith has spent more than half of his life in prison for a nonviolent, drug crime he committed as a teenager. The number of drug related incarcerations have increased dramatically over the years because of laws that are being signed which are causing people, who were once considered law abiding citizens, to now be considered felons. 40 years ago, there weren’t nearly as many laws as there are now days. This is a huge factor in why people would assume that crime rates are dramatically increasing, when the real reason is laws being signed into effect every year.
Mass incarceration is also heavily impacted by the racial division in our country. People of color make up only 37% of the population of the United States, yet people of color also make up 67% of the of the total population of the United States prison system(ACLU). These numbers are very skewed. A huge reason for this issue is because of the racial divide in this country. “African Americans are more likely than white americans to be arrested; once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted; once convicted, they are more likely to face stiff sentences.”(The Sentencing Project). According to research gathered by the American Civil Liberties Union, “African American men are 6 times more likely to be arrested than white men. Hispanic and Latino men are twice as likely to be arrested as non-hispanic and non-latino white men”(ACLU). The lifetime likelihood of imprisonment for African American U.S. residents born in 2001 is 1 in 3 while the likelihood of a white man to be convicted is 1 in 17(Beck). Colored people in poor or struggling communities are more likely to be “repeat offenders” than a white man in the suburbs. The average white man typically is seen as having more education, money, and privilege. While people of color in impoverished neighborhoods are typically perceived as being uneducated and poor. Police also tend to use more force and enforce the laws more strictly in poor areas or cities than they would in a normal city. African American citizens are being pulled over and hassled on the streets for little to no reasoning just because of the color of their skin or based on their appearance. Philando Castile, for example, was pulled over for a traffic violation when he alerted the officer he had a gun on him. The officer did not listen to what Castile was saying after that and shot Castile dead with his girlfriend in the passenger seat and her 4 year old daughter in the back seat. This is just one of many real life situations that happen almost daily in America.
The bail system also plays a huge role in the unnecessary amount of people behind bars. The bail system is a way to make sure that people convicted for a crime will show up to their court hearing date. Instead of sitting in jail and waiting for your court date, you can pay the bail and be released until your court date. There are two major issues with this system. One of the issues is that obtaining a court date can take months and even years to get. Now you have a large amount of people that have been incarcerated waiting months on end in jail before they are even found guilty of the crime they are accused of committing. The other major issue is being able to afford bail. “The United States Constitution says a person is considered innocent until they are proven guilty – so that means more than 450,000 innocent people are currently in jail, simply because they’re too poor not to be.”(Ideas.Ted) Mass incarceration and the bail system is costing billions of dollars a year to keep people in jail pre trial. According to a Harvard Law study proposition, “Taxpayers spend approximately $38 million a day – or $14 billion a year – on pretrial detention.”(Harvard Law Study).
Thus, mass incarceration in our prisons and jails can be improved with a significant change in the bail system, eliminating incarceration for low level, nonviolent offenses, investing in alternative, cost efficient programs and drug treatment centers, and distinguishing between those who pose a threat to public safety and those who are ready to re-enter back into society. Revising the bail system to keep low level, nonviolent offenders out of incarceration will save both parties money and will also save the offender their freedom until they are proven guilty. Investing more time and money into drug treatment centers will save lives and will also transform a lot of people in breaking a cycle of being released and sent back to prison. And finally, differentiating people who are ready to go back into society and those are not and still pose a threat more clearly will save a lot of innocent and changed people their freedom and millions in taxpayer dollars.
Beck, Allen. “Lifetime Likelihood of Going to State or Federal Prison.” US Department of Justice, 2016, bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/Llgsfp.pdf.
Crutchfield, Robert D., and Gregory A. Weeks. “The Effects of Mass Incarceration on Communities of Color.” Issues in Science and Technology, 2 Nov. 2015, issues.org/the-effects-of-mass-incarceration-on-communities-of-color/.
Initiative, Prison Policy. “Detaining the Poor: How Money Bail Perpetuates an Endless Cycle of Poverty and Jail Time.” Detaining the Poor: How Money Bail Perpetuates an Endless Cycle of Poverty and Jail Time | Prison Policy Initiative, www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/incomejails.html.
“Bail Reform.” American Civil Liberties Union, www.aclu.org/issues/smart-justice/bail-reform.
“Bail Reform and Risk Assessment: The Cautionary Tale of Federal Sentencing.” Harvard Law Review, http://www.harvardlawreview.org/2018/02/bail-reform-and-risk-assessment-the-cautionary-tale-of-federal-sentencing/.
“Criminal Justice Facts.” The Sentencing Project, www.sentencingproject.org/criminal-justice-facts/
“Solutions.” American Civil Liberties Union, http://www.aclu.org/other/solutions.