What Are The Main Causes Of Mass Incarceration In The United States?

10 November 2015
 Categories: , Blog

The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country in the world, with over one and one half million individuals presently incarcerated and additional millions involved in some way with the criminal justice system.

Federal and state sentencing mandates and policing policies, along with the privatization of many prisons, have led to an ever increasing problem of mass incarceration and its results on both the incarcerated and the vulnerable communities that are most affected.

 Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986

Spurred by the crack cocaine epidemic that was wreaking havoc in impoverished urban areas in the 1980's, the act of congress imposed tough mandatory minimum sentences for mostly non-violent drug offenses.

Possession of five grams of crack cocaine, which was predominantly used in poor African American communities, was given the same penalty as possession of five hundred grams of powder cocaine, which is the form preferred by affluent Caucasian users.

The possession of small amounts of marijuana and other drugs could also lead to long prison sentences mandated by the minimum mandatory guidelines imposed by Congress that essentially took the power of sentencing from judges and juries.

While criminal law attorneys could not even inform juries of mandatory minimum sentencing during a trial, some attorneys developed techniques such as questioning their accused client about how much jail time they expected to receive if found guilty of the relatively minor offense. This informed the jury indirectly of the disproportionate jail time the accused would receive for something as simple as possession of a small amount of marijuana, in the hope that they would refuse to convict.

Zero tolerance policing

Instituted by Rudy Giuliani, the newly elected mayor of New York City, in the 1990's as a method of reducing crime, this approach focuses on arrests and prosecution for petty crimes. Offences such as loitering, prostitution, and possession of small amounts of drugs were thought to contribute to overall decay, scaring away law abiding citizens and attracting serious offenders to an area.

Crime rates in New York City did plummet dramatically, leading other major cities to adopt these policies in the hope of having the same success. Whether the adoption of zero tolerance policing or the eventual decline of the crack epidemic that began in the 1980's led to the reduction in violent crime, zero tolerance policing did lead to the arrest of hundreds of thousands of individuals for minor offenses.

Some of these cases were never prosecuted, but many individuals that were caught up in these mass arrests were incarcerated and obtained criminal convictions, which caused them to lose their current jobs or face difficulties in finding employment. Individuals with drug convictions are also barred from federal student loan programs.

Because this type of policing was used predominantly in poor, marginalized communities, distrust of the police and further deterioration of family structure occurred.

Criminal law attorneys can help clients to expunge their criminal records for minor non-felonious offences by filing requests for expungement or by requesting that their client enter a drug counseling program if they are facing a misdemeanor drug charge. Either option will seal their records to allow them access to employment or to federal student loan programs. 

Speak to a criminal law attorney or learn more here.