US Prison System: How Mass Incarceration Began | Skimm News | theSkimm
Mass incarceration
The Story

The US has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

How high is it?

At the end of 2016, more than 2 million people in America were behind bars. Most are in state prisons or local jails, with a smaller share in federal prisons. Quick note: a jail is typically used to house people for a shorter amount of time, such as those awaiting trial or sentencing, or those serving a term shorter than a year. Prisons are for convicted criminals serving long-term sentences.

Got it. So how’d we end up in this situation?

Many trace the rise in the US prison population to tough-on-crime policies that started to pick up in the late 20th century. 

Explain please.

Drug-related and violent crimes in the US (which the government considers murder, sexual assault, assault, and robbery) started dramatically increasing in the late 1960s, and could be due in part to increased urbanization and rising homicide rates among African Americans. In response, both the feds and states started adopting stricter sentencing laws. In the 1970s, President Nixon declared a “war on drugs,” kicking off decades of federal policy aimed at decreasing drug use, including harsher sentencing. The crack-cocaine epidemic of the 1980s contributed to both the rise in crime and the number of people locked up. In 1994, then-President Bill Clinton signed the crime bill. 

What’s that?

It adopted federal policies like mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes and the three-strikes rule, which mandated life in prison if someone convicted of a “violent felony” has two prior convictions. It also expanded the death penalty to apply to dozens more crimes. And offered federal funding to states that ensured that prisoners served most of their sentences (vs being let out early). 


Simply put: the effect of these state and federal policies was to lock more people up for a longer amount of time. Now the country is at a point where prisons are overcrowded and expensive to maintain. They’re increasingly housing an aging population with costly medical needs. What’s more, studies show that incarceration isn’t necessarily helping rehabilitate criminals – in fact, people who spend time in prison are more likely to commit a crime.


Yes. Meanwhile, even though crime rates in the US have been falling for decades, the incarceration rate has only dipped slightly. And minorities have been disproportionately affected. Black people are more than five times as likely to be imprisoned as white people in the US. All of these circumstances have led to louder calls among activists and politicians for criminal justice reform. 

What kinds of calls?

There are a lot of thoughts about how to address the issue. We get into the main solutions up for debate and the impact mass incarceration has had on society in theSkimm app. Every week, the app goes deep on a different news topic to give you the context you need to understand what's going on in the world. Download the app now and you get the first week free.

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