Tough on Crime Policies Lead to Mass Incarceration

 “Get tough” and “law and order” policies are what led us to the era of mass incarceration in the United States. Now, you may not have heard this term before, so let me give you some information about it. Broadly, it focuses on the fact that we incarcerate individuals at a rate unheard of in developed nations. The Brennan Center for Justice estimates that “there are 2.3 million people in the nation’s prisons and jails — a 500 percent increase over the last forty years” (Brennan Center for Justice, 2016). To put that in perspective, in 2015, Houston, Texas had a population estimated as 2,217,706 people. So about the same number of people are incarcerated as live in the fourth largest city in the United States.

We incarcerate at a rate about five times higher than most other nations in the world (Prison Policy Initiative, 2016). You can see how our incarceration rates compare to other NATO members here.

Now, you may say, duh! I watch the news. Crime is out of control right now. Our crime rates have been increasing so it’s obvious that we will incarcerate more if crime is on the rise.

The American Society of Criminology issued a statement on current crime control policies, where they plead to keep science in the Department of Justice. You can see that open letter here. They remind us that “rates of violent and property crime have been declining in the U.S. for at least a quarter century… It is true that some cities experienced large increases in homicide in 2015, but this is not indicative of a national pattern as homicide rates overall remain significantly below 1990s peaks.” (ASC Executive Board Letter).

You can see the crime rate as compared to the incarceration rate here.

But the concept of mass incarceration isn’t just amount raw numbers. It is important to point out that these rates aren’t equally spread across the entire population. Minorities are disproportionately affected by these incarceration rates, which means that it’s largely minority communities being torn apart by the criminal justice system. When looking at incarceration, black men have a 1 in 3 chance of being imprisoned, while white men have a much lower likelihood of 1 in 17 (The Sentencing Project, 2015). There are a ton of reasons why this disparity occurs, but I’m going to leave that for a different blog or for you to read more about on your own.

Lifetime likelihood of imprisonment for those born in 2001

 Source: Bonczar, 2003 and The Sentencing Project, 2015

I do want to highlight one more thing about mass incarceration. The rates I have shown only account for being incarcerated in jails and prisons. There are many additional people under correctional control, like on parole or probation. When we add all those people in, it has been estimated that 1 in 31 adults in the United States are under correctional control (The Pew Center on the States, 2009). Once again though, this number is an average. When we account for race/ethnicity, minorities are disproportionately affected: 1 in 11 black adults versus 1 in 27 Hispanic adults and 1 in 45 white adults; 1 in 18 men versus 1 in 89 women (The Pew Center on the States, 2009).

In the last decade or so, there has been a decline in the incarceration rate. States have focused on more data-driven policies often due to fiscal concerns about the costs of corrections in their state. Despite this decline, we still incarcerate at an extremely high rate, but it really comes down to people. We are locking people up and tearing apart families and communities.



About Dr. Andrea Krieg

This blog was written when Dr. Krieg was serving as Assistant Professor of Justice, Law and Public Safety Studies at Lewis University in Illinois.

3 thoughts on “Tough on Crime Policies Lead to Mass Incarceration

  1. Common Sense
    September 11, 2019 at 3:18 pm

    What a joke. 6% (black men 15-30) commit 65% of all violent crime. If this demographic was removed from the population we would be on par with the UK, Australia, ect. Does not take someone with a PHD in transgender womens studies to figure that out.

  2. Mike Cunningham
    June 27, 2017 at 4:17 pm

    I would highly recommend Chris Hayes’s A Colony in a Nation for stark look at our prejudicial approach to crime and incarceration and for the various tangled reasons behind it. Loaded with spot on coverage of events like Ferguson and with Hayes’s own personal accounts growing up in Queens in the 80s.

  3. Katie Potter
    June 23, 2017 at 9:43 am

    Thank you for this insight, Dr. Krieg.

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