America’s Incarceration Problem

By Emily Thompson

America has an incarceration problem and some experts believe it begins at the root of the criminal justice system and extends all the way to the personal biases of police officers, court employees, detention facility staff and parole boards. Systemic racism at government levels is also said to directly contribute to the problem. The question is how can it be solved?

It is impossible to discuss criminal justice reform in America without discussing the problems within the criminal justice system. Today, approximately 1.2 million Americans are incarcerated. Despite making up only 5% of the world population, America has the highest incarceration rate with 25% of the global prison population. That is a huge disparity; either too many Americans are incarcerated or too few people in other countries are incarcerated.

However, it is not all bad news. According to a report by the Pew Research Center, the US imprisonment rate has remained on a downward trajectory since 2006. Others say that rate has been declining since even the year 2000. Part of the reason for this is because a number of states have succeeded in instituting reforms, leading to reduced prison admissions and lengths of stay.

Experts explain that there are a number of reasons these rates have declined. Eli Hager of The Marshall Project, a news organization which aims to highlight issues in the US criminal justice system, points to four theories that could explain this drop.

First, crime, arrests and incarceration are declining overall. Second, the war on drugs has shifted from smaller violations with regard to crack and marijuana and has now focused on meth and opioids. Third, more White people have experienced a drop in socioeconomic status and have turned to crimes of poverty such as robbery, counterfeiting and selling or buying stolen property. Fourth, criminal justice reform is taking place in many cities across America, which has a direct effect on the number of people entering incarceration.

America also has a racial problem and that becomes somewhat glaring when discussing incarceration.

Black Americans constitute roughly 13.4 percent of the US population yet make up a whopping 32% of the total prison population. A recent report by The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy center, found that Black Americans are imprisoned at nearly five times the rate of White Americans. In some states, like New Jersey, Black Americans are 12 times more likely to be incarcerated than White Americans.

The report explains that America’s history of white supremacy over Black people created a lasting legacy of racial inequality and subordination that impacts the decisions made within the criminal justice system today.

The report also explains that Black communities face discrimination on a policy level with bias in police-citizen relations, pretrial detention, sentencing and prosecutorial systems.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) notes that the criminal justice system “is heavily impacted by the bias of police mentality, as well as outdated judicial precedents. It is largely driven by racial disparities, which directly obstruct and deconstruct our minority communities.”

The NAACP also explains that numerous problems in the criminal justice system lie with law enforcement, police brutality, and racial bias. The cycle of incarceration and recidivism rate is also problematic, with 50% of prisoners likely to return to prison within just a few years after being released.

Notably, famed Black American actor Denzel Washington observed in 2017 that, in his opinion, the problem is not color, but culture. He asked why so many families were fatherless and insisted that people should not blame the system for the high level of Black incarceration, but rather that the problem begins at home.“By the time the system comes into play, the damage is done. They’re not locking up 7-year-olds. It starts in the home.”

Of course, this is Washington’s view and he is entitled to it, but it is unclear whether most Black Americans agree with him. The prevailing understanding in America today is that there is systemic racism rooted in slavery-era laws and discrimination and the public is insisting that reform takes place not just at home, but at the highest levels, in order to completely eradicate racism.



Aside from top-level reforms, some experts believe criminal justice reform specifically can go further in lowering crime and incarceration rates by decriminalizing low-level drug offenses, enacting proportional sentencing, measuring the future impact of crime-related policies through racial impact legislation, and repealing racially biased laws still in existence.

For many Americans, the country’s incarceration problem is more of a racism problem and until that changes, the two will go hand-in-hand.

Emily Thompson is an independent researcher focusing on American domestic and foreign policies.

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