The Terrible Price of Mass Incarceration

Posted on April 5, 2012 by


Have you ever driven a car, blindfolded, at a hundred and fifty miles an hour?

It’s a line uttered by the creepy sociopath, Bruno Anthony, in Strangers On A Train, but it might just as well describe American correctional policy since the 1970s. We are out of control, careening down a self-destructive path, ignoring the voices of reason that implore us to slow down and beware of the damage we are causing.

In the 1970s, reform was the name of the game, and our incarceration rate hovered around a reasonable rate of 170 per 100,000. But with the end of Carter’s time in office, the Get Tough Era rushed in and captured America’s attention with emotional appeals. Get Tough created a political landscape that fundamentally altered American public discourse on crime.

By 1990, the incarceration rate had reached 461 per 100,000; by the time the New York Times reported on the problem in 2008 it had reached 751 per 100,000. We have outpaced, well, virtually everyone regardless of status as an industrial, European, or humanitarian nation. James Q. Whitman eloquently explained the deep roots of Americans’ uniquely punitive moral imperative in his book, Harsh Justice. This fundamental drive to impose an unyielding and cold code of punitive ethics across the criminal justice system was further fueled by three critical policy “reform” movements.

Truth in sentencing, mandatory minimums, and three strikes legislation, in concert with an equally maniacal war on drugs, created the overwhelming mass incarceration problem we have today.

And the worst of it, the very worst of it, is that everything we are doing is creating more crime. For all the indignant and vengeful voices calling for more punishment, there is scant attention paid to the terrible price we pay for every human being we lock up.

We pay the price in dollars, through expensive prisons and the crushing personnel demands of an over-reliance on supermax and solitary confinement. We pay the price in our humanity, through dehumanizing and othering such a significant proportion of our population. We pay the price in grief through fresh crimes committed by the newly released whose prison experiences have crushed the desire and the ability to participate as valued contributing members of society.