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The High Incarceration Rate in the US Essay

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Updated: Jun 7th, 2022


The rate of incarceration throughout the US has grown significantly since the last century and more than doubled in the past four decades. That tendency makes researchers wonder what are the consequences for the prisoners themselves, their families and communities they come from, as well as society as a whole (Travis, Western & Redburn, 2014). There are 2 million people incarcerated for crimes in the U.S. and 7 million people under supervision in various programs. The issue of high incarceration rates affects more than just the criminals—it has huge impacts on the justice system, the economy, and the communities where the crimes took place. One of the primary problems is this overarching misconception people have in assuming that incarceration in turn reduces overall crime rates, however, there is no data to directly correlate the two issues. We see repeatedly that when incarceration gets to a certain density, that is when you see the effects begin to shift from crime control to bigger issues we will further discuss in this paper. (Fletcher, 2015).

From the 1960’sthrough the 1980’s, a political climate change brought about significant changes in policies regarding criminal justice and the way they handled criminals. These shifts in political climate have established new, longer, and more severe sentences for lesser offences, violent crimes, recidivists, and drug-related offences (Travis, Western & Redburn, 2014). With the growing rates of the incarcerated, prosecutors and judges took it upon themselves to offer out harsher punishments, leading to longer sentencing, which resulted in the start over overcrowding within prisons. At the start of 1990s, the Congress, along with the support of several states, established the new “three strikes and you’re out” rule in addition to “truth-in sentencing” policy that obliged criminals to serve almost complete appointed sentence. From these newly tailored policies, a straightforward approach to incarceration as a tool for crime control and isolation from the communities was enacted (Travis, Western & Redburn, 2014). Despite the lawmakers’ desire to protect the society, no direct correlation between lower crime rates and harsher incarceration was found, which made the policy one of the most influential factors in prison overcrowding across the U.S.

High Incarceration Rates Affecting Prisoners

Significant overcrowding in the Federal Bureau of Prisons and punitive establishments across multiple states is apparent in the way they operate above their intended capacity. As a result, inmates are forced to share cells with one or two other inmates despite the original intent of the room being for one inmate only. Research has found that overcrowding negatively affects convicts’ health on multiple levels and disturbs their behavior, eventually leading to suicide and increased violence. Travis, Western and Redburn (2014) have discovered that risks of overcrowding include poor physical and psychological health, increased likelihood of suicide, and violence. Since prisons operate above the designed capacity, less medical and rehabilitative help is offered to inmates (Travis, Western & Redburn, 2014). The alarming decrease in the quality of life in prisons urge for a solution.

Female offenders are part of the issue as well since as the overcrowding issue spreads, the portion of female inmates increases too, which contributes to their heightened vulnerability on multiple levels. Addiction, mental health issues, PTSD, along other problems such as illiteracy and misdiagnosed mental disability, constitute the small portion of risks associated with female convicts. Consequently, WHO (2009) linked these concerns with higher rates of suicide, which are significantly higher in comparison with male inmates.

With a rise in prisoner heath issues we see a lack of resources and means for them to cope with issues they may be facing while incarcerated. Currently, there are no readily available mental health services to facilitate the overwhelming scope of mental health issues; as a result, the services focus on gender-specific interventions and already existing psychiatric diagnosis (Bartlett & Hollins 2018).

Budgeting Issues Associated with High Incarceration Rates

If we could figure a way to release 100,000 prisoners over the age of 50, the cost savings to taxpayers would be in the billions. Independent of one’s philosophical or political perspective, finding cost-efficient alternatives to incarceration makes sense. And maybe sense can prevail. (Bohannon& Curott, 2018). Current low-cost budget is not capable of sustaining a prison with high standards of security, organization, and humane living conditions. Prisons are considered ‘‘total institutions’’ that provide all aspects necessary for convicts to spend considerable periods of time there; for some, it is their lifetime. The budget covers prison staff who require uniforms, food and nutrition for inmates, rehabilitation, recreational and educational programs that ensure low recidivism rates, infrastructure maintenance, and healthcare to maintain the population vulnerable to illnesses (Henrichson & Delaney, 2012).

Prison costs consistently fail to meet or fall under budget and can be depicted in three categories. The first part is the expenses for administrative tasks and purposes like employee benefits and capital costs. The second element is the additional inmate rehabilitation, recreational, and educational programs funded with the help of external agencies. The third category consists of the costs for pensions and retirement healthcare plans that were underfunded before (Henrichson & Delaney, 2012)

Collateral Consequences Resulting from Incarceration Rates

“Mass incarceration is then something that predominately and most severely affects specific neighborhoods; the residents of poor communities of color are disproportionately subjected to imprisonment” (Clear, 2007). This is a clear depiction of collateral damage of a simple act. Some of the collateral damage done to neighborhoods with high levels of criminal activity and arrests are cumulative disadvantage, bias and stigma connected with criminalization of the area, as well as more policing (Lopez-Aguado, 2016).

Crimes and Proper Punishment: The Solution Proposal

I do not see a world where we can do nothing in response to an issue such as high incarceration rates. We need to make a complete change to our justice system and how it operates such as a phased-in approach that would ensure that criminals are properly being handled while in the justice system. Overall, sentencing needs to ensure proportionality; for instance, minor offences should receive less serious punishment. There needs to be a standard guidance as to what is deemed serious and the intent behind the criminal committing the crime. Along with sentencing we have must ensure there is proper parsimony in place. Having appropriate periods of confinement to ensure we are achieving the goal of sentencing will ensure we do not have personnel incarcerated for longer periods of time, occupying spaces when they have served their time appropriately and can be rehabilitated back into their community. As well as having proper sentencing to fit the crime, you want to ensure you don’t completely disconnect the inmate where they have trouble maintaining proper social status as a functioning member of their society.

When examining the structural issues connected with overcrowding, social justice should be highlighted as an area in need of improvement. Strong social justice in prisons means that they operate to promote rather than repress equal opportunities, resources, and rights that the society strives for (Travis, Western & Redburn, 2014). This should look like having proper programs, resources and tools for these inmates to have the basic necessities of a normal life while incarcerated. This means ensuring they have proper food, shelter, and medical as a baseline standard.

We need to start looking into reconsideration strategies regarding policies dealing with incarceration. Specifically, we need to deep dive into sentencing policy, prison policy, and social

policy. Fist we need to analyze sentencing policies and how we can reexam the current policies to ensure there is various details being provided from both public communities and the policy makers The plan needs to include a comprehensive outline of the action plan where several agencies will cooperate to reduce incarceration levels (Travis, Western, & Redburn, 2014). Although there are some sentencing policy changes that attempt to change social, economic, and human losses, they bear uncertain benefits and do not provide necessary punitive punishment (Travis, Western, & Redburn, 2014). We need to reevaluate the longevity of sentences for violent crimes, severity of minimum sentences for minor offences, and policies on enforcement of drug laws for starters.

Sentencing Policy

Impact on Department

Although the solution in sentencing policy is predicted to have a positive effect on multiple levels of incarceration, analyzing how the change affects agencies related to the issue is essential. Firstly, as it concerns the impact on the department, the shift in policy is going to affect the judges, parole boards, and lawmakers directly. With the reevaluation of the longevity and severity of sentencing, more criminals are likely to receive shorter or less severe punishments and, as a result, get a chance for better rehabilitation. In that sense, the policy shift can replicate the indeterminate sentencing model (Neal & Rick, 2016). The model offers the department “the freedom to consider prospects for rehabilitation, the provision of incentives for good behavior and self-improvement, and the expected effects on public safety when allocating punishments to offenders” (Neal & Rick, 2016, p. 2). This approach will allow parole boards and judges to execute decisions that better suit the interests of both the community and the offenders rather than the community alone by isolating the convicts for extended periods.

Impact on Budgeting

As it concerns budgeting, the overall change in policy is expected to be more cost-efficient in comparison with the current system. As Neal and Rick (2016) noted, “the laws that mandate harsher punishment for offenders cannot accomplish their stated objectives if legislators do not allocate sufficient resources to both prosecute and confine offenders” (p. 33). Consequently, the issue of high incarceration rates bears a financial burden for the budget. Thus, the transition to rethought sentence longevity, mandatory sentencing, and punishment for drug-related offences will allow for less spending and more cost-effectiveness. Despite the long-term benefits, however, the transition is expected to be costly.

Impact on Society

Referring back to the indeterminate sentencing model, it provided the Department of Corrections and the Department of Justice with more opportunities for the offenders to rehabilitate and reintegrate into the society. However, such an approach also subjects marginalized minorities to bias and oppression. Additionally, while making the sentencing policy less punitive can increase chances of better social reintegration, it is not directly related and not guaranteed (Neal & Rick, 2016). In contrast, this change in policy might lead to undermining public safety by allowing offenders to return to the communities too soon for them to receive the intended punishment (Neal & Rick, 2016). Consequently, while changing the sentencing policy can be beneficial for the communities, some dangers of inadequate punishment also remain.

Prison Policy

There are significant shortcomings when we take a look at prison policies. Inmates who enter prisons and are incarcerated for any amount of time are encountering damaging experiences while serving their time. This gap in proper policies and non-standard policies vastly affected the incarcerated members, their families and the communities they came from. We need to improve the quality of life and the conditions of the prisons, as well as increase the availability of various programs that are aimed at minimizing the harmful effects of imprisonment and maximize their chances of reintegration (Travis, Western, & Redburn, 2014).

Impact on Department

As per the department, the significant effect of changing the prison policy influences not only the inmates but also correctional officers and prisons’ staff. Naik (2019) emphasized that the conditions within the punitive system have a drastic effect on the employees. Correctional officers within a prison where inmates suffer from inhumane living conditions, lack of medical and mental help, and overcrowding are more susceptible to psychological issues, substance abuse, and dangerous levels of aggression and stress (Naik, 2019). Work-related psychological traumas and constant pressure also make the prison staff vulnerable to violence, which makes policy for changing prison conditions a necessary adjustment in the interest of the Department of Corrections. Such improvement will minimize work-related hazards and improve the overall security and well-being of employees.

Impact on Budgeting

Although the cost to improve the conditions in prisons will be high, the projected change that will reduce the recidivism rate can decrease the number of inmates and, consequently, minimize budget spending for their maintenance. Naik (2019) listed medical, psychological, hygienic, and educational facilities as the needed improvements within prison policy integration. The shift in living conditions will make the punitive sentence a rehabilitative period rather than a time to worsen criminals’ physical and mental health, making them more likely to return to illegal activity (Naik, 2019). As a result, convicts will be less likely to return to criminal offences and reenter the prison system, which will decrease overcrowding. However, the introduction of additional rehabilitative programs and improving living conditions will require considerable funding.

Impact on Society

As it concerns the impact on the society, the change in prison policy will contribute to reintegrating inmates and making them less dangerous to the communities they return to, which will result in increased safety. Due to adequate educational and rehabilitation programs introduced by the new policy, criminals will receive the needed information and skills that will help them avoid returning to the criminal activity and putting the society at risk (MacDonald, 2018). Apart from decreasing the overall crime and recidivism rate, the prison policy will also improve the mental health of the inmates and make them more susceptible to positive change (MacDonald, 2018). According to MacDonald (2018), more than half of all prisoners showcase some symptoms of mental illness, and when being released, pose a threat to themselves and others. Facilitating rehabilitation rather than imposing harsh isolation will force criminals to recover rather than continue their illegal activity.

Social Policy

Another department we need to address is social policy. While changing sentencing policy is essential, it will not eliminate economic concerns, illiteracy, physical and mental health concerns related to the issue of high incarceration rates. Thus, the possible solutions to the issue require not only changes in policies within the Department of Justice and Corrections, but also include lawmaking to stop school dropout, substance abuse, mental disability, and poverty from becoming reasons for incarceration. Creating policies directed towards these issues that intimately impact the methodology behind why personnel is being incarcerated (Travis, Western, & Redburn, 2014). When the community is at a disadvantage beforehand the men and women who are incarcerated form them are forced to return to these poor communities with a lack of proper support to remain or get on track and rehabilitate efficiently. If we were able to poor education, funding and programs to these misfortunate communities it could aid in reducing the incarceration rate, by allowing these individuals to feel the freedom to better the situation they have been put in due to social class. These measures put a lot of responsibility on lawmakers and the society since they need to address and facilitate the quality, availability, and equality of social security. More specifically, drug treatment and rehabilitation facilities, accessible healthcare, employment, and housing need to be available to vulnerable population in high risk of incarceration (Travis, Western, & Redburn, 2014).

Impact on Department

As this policy solution does not involve the Department of Justice and Corrections directly but is aimed at a collective effort of multiple agencies, the government, and the communities, evaluating the impact is somewhat challenging. However, the solution will positively influence the overall system of justice by creating a philosophy of crime reduction. As Crawford and Evans (2017) stated, crime prevention was eliminated from the “police-led silo and declared that ‘preventing crime is a task for the whole community’” (p. 805). However, people from the Department of Justice, as the most competent in the area of crime, will create a united front in identifying issues, facilitating the social policy, and reinforcing the idea of preventable crime. On the other hand, Crawford and Evans (2017) also noted that such practice could create more stigma within the department since “intervention risks labelling young people as possible offenders of the future” (p. 810). Consequently, the benefits and risks for the department are controversial.

Impact on Budgeting

Secondly, if you examine budgeting, this solution is extremely cost-effective in the long-term, but also the most financially demanding. Creating better social security for the vulnerable population is a comprehensive and resource-draining task that will require substantial budget allocation (Crawford & Evans, 2017). Lack of budget is one of the significant obstacles for policy intervention along with “reluctance of health, education, and social services to participate” (Crawford & Evans, 2017, p. 815). On the other hand, preventing crime is a practice that will stop the vulnerable population from committing the crime, which will reduce the number of inmates and decrease the incarceration rate. It will also result in less budgeting for prisons and more security for the communities (Crawford & Evans, 2017). However, the initial substantial budget spending is required for better prevention outcomes.

Impact on Society

Lastly, as it concerns the impact on the society, the apparent effect of social policies is the definite reduction of crime and offenders in the communities. If the vulnerable members of the population like mentally ill, school drop-outs, and low-income people are socially integrated with the help of various agencies, they are less likely to consider the illegal activity (Crawford & Evans, 2017). As a result, society does not only experience fewer criminal offences, it is also developed by more law-conscious individuals who contribute personally and economically to the growth of the community.


As policy makers and enforcers it is imperative that we are just to all people, not just the select ones whose views and lives align with ours. The bible tells us in Proverbs, “Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.” (Proverbs 31:9, ESV). We have a duty to reach our hands out and help the ones less fortunate than ourselves. By getting ahead of the issue before it becomes an issue in these poverty-stricken communities and the people that reside there we can reduce incarceration rates by the means of prevention and mitigation. Having plans and programs in place for personnel to choose their own fate, can allow them the freedom to change their circumstance for the better, instead of potentially leading them to enter the criminal justice system and become incarcerated, adding to the overall problem.

By making changes to past laws in place we can ensure we are properly observing and distributing proper punishments to crimes being committed. The current policies in place have created this burden of high incarceration rates by no adapting to the technology and education we have readily available to utilize to make the justice system much more effective and efficient. In Psalms it speaks out stating, “Blessed are they who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times!” (Psalm 106:3, ESV). Being able to properly deal with crimes and punishments can significantly reduce the need to incarcerate without question and over sentence when the punishment doesn’t fit the crime.

The bible outlines exactly what we need to do in the simplest of forms in the book of James, “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.” (James 2:8-9, ESV). If everyone treated others as they wanted to be treated, their would be grace, trust, and compassion across the justice system. No one would go through the system and witness and experience judgement, biased and unjust treatment if everyone had the ability to treat others fairly and with genuine respect. They would create policies and implement programs to ensure these personnel were set up for success from the moment they enter, till the time the exit their incarceration periods.


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