America Locked Up


The United States is approximately five percent of the world’s population. Despite being a nation built upon the principle of liberty, over 2 million Americans are currently serving time in prison. The fact that one in five prisoners in the United States is in prison for a nonviolent drug offense is extremely disturbing and raises important issues within our criminal justice system.

The United States has more people incarcerated than any other country in the world. This has happened despite being the third most populated and at the same time maintaining crime rates that are lower than the those of the two most populated countries: China and India. Even though there is less crime occurring in the United States, prisons are overflowing while prisons in countries such as Norway have the opposite problem.

It is important to acknowledge that African Americans and Latino Americans are disproportionately locked up. African Americans make up thirteen percent of the United States population, however they make up forty percent of our incarcerated population. While it is easy for some to say that there are more minorities in prison because minorities commit more crimes, however it  is important to take a look at the demographics and what story these numbers tell.

Statistically speaking, twenty-seven percent of African Americans are considered at or below the poverty rate, while Caucasian Americans have a poverty rate just under ten percent. In cities where there is poverty, crime is more likely to be committed. This statistic can be due to the fact that in poor neighborhoods schools lack the necessary funds and low income neighborhoods have much higher high school dropout rates than middle class neighborhoods. 

prison-population-by-offenseThe problem with our broken prison system is that it is controlled by big money. Private prisons are prisons and detention centers owned by private companies and not by the state or federal governments. Many activists have been demanding change to our prison system, and Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates announced that the Obama Administration would be phasing out private prisons. Private prison contracts are being terminated as the current administration looks to lowering the incarceration rate.

It is also important to look at the influence of drug legalization on private prisons. Private prisons donate to candidates for elected office in hopes that they will keep the laws as they are so that private prisons and their wealthy owners can benefit. If marijuana became legal, that means that many would be using recreational marijuana without consequences. This also means that less people would be incarcerated, therefore private prisons would not be growing exponentially and they would lose money.

But private prisons are not the only problem contributing to mass incarceration. Our laws for nonviolent crime causes many people to spend years in jail who have drug addictions or tax evasion. While it is against the law to use illegal drugs and to not pay your taxes, incarcerating people is not the answer. Now, taxpayers will be providing funds to keep these prisons running, and taxpayers will be paying for people who commit nonviolent crimes to sit in jail.

When compared to other industrialized nations and their prisons, the United States does not match up well – at all. In Norway, prisons contain amenities such as a three room cell, kitchen areas, healthcare professionals, and other workshops. Here in the United States prison cells look like cages and are extremely small and often shared.

Some may argue that prison should not be enjoyable; but this argument is invalid. Norway invests in prisons so criminals can return back to their normal lives with ease when released, and so they are able to get jobs and contribute to society. In the United States, prison sentences are harsher and the return rate is much higher for prisoners.

We are in a new time; we’ve seen what works and what doesn’t. It is clearer than ever that arresting nonviolent drug offenders does not make us safer, but providing necessary rehabilitation does. Virtually no one argues the fact that our criminal justice system has major flaws, but now it is time for debates on what kinds of reforms are necessary.