The United States offers its people the most freedom and liberty of any country in the world, yet, despite this, the prison population is larger here than in all other countries. For a country that is forward-thinking and home to laws that are not draconian by any means, it does not seem logical that there are so many people incarcerated. In 2016, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that approximately 2.2 million adults were locked away in jail.
When a person is locked up, many times, they are not serving their time alone. Often, inmates leave behind loved ones that have to also endure the distance apart and manage the emotional toll of the situation. In some instances, the inmate was the sole means of financial support for their loved ones and while they are behind bars, their loved ones suffer that loss. There are several implications that come along with a prison sentence, and the effects are far-reaching. In many instances, a jail term affects more people than just the inmate themselves.
Why are America’s Prison Populations So Big?
America’s struggle with prison reform has gotten more attention in recent years. There are many factors that are being evaluated to determine what the best approach would be when it comes to using prison in a reasonable manner and when the prison is not the right approach to a specific case. There are many reasons why so many people are housed in the U.S. prison system, but the following three issues are the most pervasive:
- The United States has made a concerted effort to fight the “War on Drugs” for close to 50 years since President Richard Nixon declared it in 1971. Federal dollars were funneled to drug control agencies and assistance was plentiful for other efforts the country made in trying to control the problem. Federal prisons are more than half-full of people serving time simply because they were associated with controlled substances in some capacity. Unfortunately for those individuals jailed because of their addiction, jail is not a remedy nor a cure and these individuals are being immensely underserved by the system.
- Recidivism rates are high when a criminal record is a permanent blemish on a person’s history that follows them around for the rest of their life. A person with a criminal history has to work much harder to live a lawful life and get ahead because they are significantly limited in their opportunities. It is also a barrier for an ex-con to establish new, healthy relationships with others.
- Those living at the lowest economic levels are at increased risk for exposure to criminal activity and to engage in criminal activity. For instance, in the United States, if your income level is under the Federal poverty level the risk for violent victimization is more than 50% higher than those that have higher income levels. When urban poverty is assessed, individuals living in these conditions are the most vulnerable to violent aggression as well as overall crime.