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How the American Prison Population Grew
By John Dewar Gleissner, Esq
Published: 04/18/2011

Prison guard tower
The U.S. now has over 2,300,000 inmates in its state and federal prisons. Our entire correctional population, including those on probation and parole, is well over 7,000,000. The expansion of the American prison population to budget-busting levels occurred in several ways, all of them starting in the last half of the twentieth century:

Destruction of the Family & Marriage. The destruction or non-formation of the two-parent family is heavily correlated with increased levels of juvenile delinquency and crime. Youth from father-absent households, especially those who never had a father in the household, have significantly higher incarceration rates. Marriage significantly discourages crime, but was increasingly not available for that purpose as more were incarcerated.

Death Penalty Decline. The death penalty came under increasing attacks. For a few years, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively stopped it with one of their rulings. Eventually, executions resumed, but on a smaller scale than earlier in the twentieth century. Instead of eliminating the worst criminals, we asked modern penitentiaries to keep convicted murderers, rapists and other dangerous criminals alive until they died in prison, either naturally or by execution.

Illegal Drugs & the War on Drugs. New illegal drugs or new forms of those drugs were discovered and developed. A War on Drugs swelled the prison population. Unlike real war combatants who destroy or disable their enemies, the government only puts the enemy in cages temporarily, and then releases drug war POWs to fight another day. The War on Drugs proceeded locally, nationally and internationally in the hopeless supply-side attack mode.

Victims' Rights Movements & Getting Tough on Crime.The U.S. Supreme Court greatly developed criminal constitutional rights favoring the accused. A backlash ensued, and the campaign for victims' rights followed. Advocates for crime victims supported tougher laws. Voters elected politicians for being tough on crime and defeated them for being soft on crime.

Abolition of Parole in the Federal System. In 1984, Congress "recognized that the efforts of the criminal justice system to achieve rehabilitation of offenders had failed." The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 abolished parole in the federal system, sought to eliminate huge sentencing disparities, basically made all federal sentences determinate, rejected "imprisonment as a means of promoting rehabilitation," and said "punishment should serve retributive, educational, deterrent, and incapacitative goals."

Mandatory Minimum Sentences. The federal government and states enacted various mandatory minimum sentence laws, requiring judges to impose minimum sentences for designated crimes, including drug crimes. These laws took discretion away from judges, some of whom were seen as too lenient, gave that discretion to prosecutors, and supposedly equalized punishment. These laws significantly increased the length of prison terms. Federal drug convictions started drawing two or three times the years previously imposed.

Three-Strikes Habitual Offender Laws. The violent career criminal was condemned. Starting with Oregon in 1993, within just a few years many states rushed to enact three-strikes habitual offender laws, before seeing the results. Three-strikes habitual offender laws in many states mandated life sentences after the third felony conviction.

Incarceration of the Mentally Ill. Courts re-examined the institutionalization of the mentally ill, started requiring formal commitment hearings, and allowed the freer release of mental patients if not deemed a threat to themselves or others. In large numbers, medicated, sedated and restrained mental patients left the hospitals controlling them. Lofty ideals justified this restructuring. These patients returned to their communities or families, received uneven treatment, and often found life difficult. Many became homeless. As mental hospitals de-institutionalized and drastically reduced the number of their patients, the mentally ill increasingly wound up in prison. Mentally ill people in large numbers changed from institutionalization in state mental hospitals to incarceration in state prisons. Around 16% of the current American prison population is mentally ill.

Prison Time Does Not Deter Enough Crime. The public recognized prisons were ineffective rehabilitation mechanisms - and then poured on more time there. The remedy to re-impose law and order was the only common penalty in sight: more prison time. Additional years in prison do not generally enhance deterrence. Although the prospect of prison time is a general deterrent to crime, the marginal deterrence of longer prison sentences is doubtful. The Institute of Criminology at Cambridge University concluded, "that the studies reviewed do not provide a basis for inferring that increasing the severity of sentences generally is capable of enhancing deterrent effects." Criminals notoriously lack long-distance foresight.

Editor's note: Corrections.com author John Dewar Gleissner, Esq. graduated from Auburn University (B.A. with Honor, 1973) and Vanderbilt University School of Law (1977), where he won the Editor's Award and participated in the Men's Penitentiary Project. In addition to practicing law in Alabama for the last 33 years, Mr. Gleissner is the author of the new book "Prison and Slavery - A Surprising Comparison"
Reprinted with permission from ezinearticles.com.

Other articles by Gleissner:


  1. Jon on 04/25/2011:

    War on Drugs...what a farce...we learned nothing from Prohibition...and as the old saying goes..."Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

  2. JP on 04/20/2011:


  3. malcolmkyle on 04/18/2011:

    Not only does the US have the highest rate of incarceration on the planet, but the racial disparity of arrests, convictions and imprisonment have become grossly pronounced. Nationwide Afro-Americans are arrested, convicted and imprisoned disproportionately. Thirty-seven percent of drug-offense arrests are Afro-Americans, 53 percent of convictions are of Afro-Americans, and 67 percent -- two-thirds of all people imprisoned for drug offenses -- are Afro-Americans. This is depute the fact that Afro-Americans do not use drugs at a perceivable higher rate than white Americans. - 8.2% of whites and 10.1% of blacks use illicit drugs. Much of the voting rights & victories won by the civil rights movement during the 1960s have effectively been eroded. Nearly 5 million people are now barred from voting because of felony disenfranchisement laws. The United States is the only industrial democracy that does this. Drug prohibition has become a successor system to Jim Crow laws in targeting black citizens, removing them from civil society and then barring them from the right to vote. If harsh sentences deterred illicit drug use, America would be "drug-free" by now. But that is not the case, and never will be. The drug war has given the "former land of the free" the highest incarceration rate in the world and disenfranchised millions of citizens. It is a cure worse than the disease.

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