8,300 People, Not 2.2 Million, Should Be Incarcerated Right Now

A history of racialized pseudo-science and half-baked policy has made a mess of our prison system.
03/13/2017 12:07 pm ET Updated Apr 18, 2017
Via: <a rel="nofollow" href="https://pixabay.com/en/prison-jail-detention-fence-wire-370112/" target="_blank">Pixabay</a>.
Via: Pixabay.

In 1946, the US incarceration rate was 99 people per 100,000. In 2013, it was 698 people per 100,000. That’s a 700 percent increase.

We couldn’t even keep that plateaued. If we had just kept it to 99 per 100,000, there’d be about 316,000 people locked up right now. That still a lot, but it’s a lot less than the 2.3 million incarcerated today, and that’s not including the 4.7 million on parole or probation.

If you added up all the people incarcerated and on parole or probation, you’d have more people than the populations of Los Angeles and Chicago combined.

Even if we had kept it consistent for seven decades, that would still mean we ignored the social, medical, political, and economic issues that lead to caging human beings.

But we didn’t keep it consistent, we made it a lot worse, which means we didn’t just ignore the issues, we exacerbated them greatly.

If a country’s government is focused on creating as safe an environment for their citizens as possible, then creating an environment that attempts to counter root causes of crime should be the focus. We should be fostering circumstances that not only discourage criminality but eliminate crime as a viable option, specifically by making law-abiding as rewarding both socially and economically.

But rather than tackle the key factors that lead to crime at the ground floor, criminal behavior is dealt with after the crime has already been committed by way of the criminal justice system.

People are in positions that statistically lead to criminal behavior, and rather than work to eliminate the existence of those positions, we let it play out. The result? Not only are innocent people victims of crime, but nothing is solved in the long term.

And even if our law and order is limited to simply avoiding a crime happening a second time, even that approach hasn’t been working. We know this by looking at the recidivism rates (percentage of inmates who serve time, are released, and are again arrested), which are dependent on which study you look at. Pew Center puts it at 43.3 percent, while the Bureau of Justice Statistics says 68 percent within three years and 77 percent within five years.

If we’re sending people to prison to rehabilitate (and the sentences aren’t life without the possibility of parole or death row), that percentage should be close to zero. If it were 10 percent, I’d consider that a problem. Over forty-three percent is crazy high, and 77 percent is unfathomable.

Laughable “rehabilitation” efforts, woefully lacking mental health resources, limited educational resources, approaching drug addiction as a crime rather than a health concern, stripping rights upon release, the professional implications of a criminal record, racial profiling, and other cause-and-effects have led to the incredibly high recidivism rates.

Rehabilitation isn’t just lacking, it’s a downright disgrace.

Many major studies have sought to pinpoint factors that are most likely to lead to criminality in the first place. These include economic stressors (like living in poverty), unemployment, poor parenting, poor education, alcohol abuse, and income inequality.

(While there is little evidence that the influence of drug use leads to crime, the desperation stemming from addiction as well as the criminalization of drug use as a whole often does.)

The War on Drugs, three strikes, stop and frisk, longer sentencing, mandatory minimums, and similar policies directly linked to the systematic annihilation of minorities in America; opening private prisons; and other cause-and-effects led to an enormous increase in the prison population. It also led to the massive number of people on parole or probation.

Solving the key factors that lead to crime is a long-term solution, and “long-term” is a classic keyword problem. If you’re a politician looking to get reelected, short-term solutions are pretty much the only answer. If you initiate programs that show newsworthy results in five years rather than six months, even if the five-year plan is vastly more effective, you might as well not bother running for another term, because you invested tax dollars in keeping citizens safer while the immediate change in crime rate is negligibly different. That’s a system where few things of true, long-lasting substance get accomplished.

Crime rates are down because the prison population is up. This doesn’t keep the crime rate down for long, it just keeps it down long enough for it to matter come Election Day. Meanwhile, the incarceration rate continues to go up and up and up.

If we had started investing time, money, and energy into chipping away at the root causes of criminality in 1946, imagine where we’d be now. Just look at the “Ten Great Public Health Achievements in the 20th Century” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These enormously beneficial initiatives, including immunizations, motor-vehicle safety, and tobacco as a health hazard, have saved millions of lives thanks to heavy and careful research and effective action based on that research.

And guess what? The effects took time to pan out. But decreasing car accident deaths isn’t exactly a political platform, and we live in a time now where being dead wrong about vaccinations can make you a major contender in a presidential election. It’s also telling when Congress has blocked the CDC from even doing a study on guns in America.

I think it’s fair to say that tackling root factors that lead to criminal acts starting in 1946 could have decreased the incarceration rate by one percent every year. That seems like a reasonable and obtainable figure. If you think one percent per year is too high, you have very little faith in our society’s potential. It’s also admitting that caging human beings at a faster rate was a more logical route than avoiding putting people in cages. That’s archaic and downright genocidal.

If “99” represents the number of people incarcerated per 100,000 in 1946, “T” the number of years, and we’re operating under the assumption that one percent is consistent every year, the mathematical formula would be: 99(0.99^T).

It’s been 71 years since 1946. Using an online exponents calculator, 0.99⁷¹ comes out to 0.48989, which, multiplied by 99, comes out to around 48.

Based on what I believe to be a bare minimum for something to be significant social progress (one percent positive difference in one year), our incarceration rate, in 2017, should be 49 people per 100,000, or 156,310 total prisoners.

Not good enough? I agree. Since when is the bare minimum good enough?

Let’s say we had decreased the incarceration rate by an average of five percent per year since 1946. That’d definitely be “raise your bottom lip and nod” worthy, but not by any means jaw-dropping.

The formula would be: 99(0.95^T), and we would have about 8,300 total prisoners in 2017.

8,300 instead of 2,220,300.

To further put it into perspective, according to Prison Policy Initiative, the United States has “1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 2,259 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,283 local jails, and 79 Indian Country jails.” That’s a total of 7,442 places you can find yourself behind bars, less than a thousand shy of being the same number of total prisoners with that 5% reduction every year since 1946.

But we didn’t start fixing the issue in 1946. We’ve done the opposite. And while it’s not too late to start now, you can’t say it’s never too late, because it looks to me like it’s teetering on a now or never scenario.

If the incarceration rate grows by 700% over the course of 71 years again, that would mean at least 15.5 million Americans will be locked away (assuming our population remains the exact same.) That’s more than the number of college students under the age of 25.

It would mean 4,886 out of 100,000 people.

This has to stop.

(If you appreciated this, please consider donating whatever you can to the Innocence Project, which “exonerates the wrongly convicted through DNA testing and reforms the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.”)

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Check out my podcast Eat the Rich, and check out my cohost Renee Kuhl’s stuff on Medium.

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