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The Problem of Mass Incarceration in the United States

Chernika is currently earning her Sociology degree at Houston Community College. She is also a researcher who focus on social issues.

Mass incarceration has taken a toll on our communities and economy. The cost of maintaining a prison is four times as much as maintaining a school system. It has been revealed that the United States of America has the highest number of incarcerated individuals compared to other countries. Many families are torn apart as a result of mass incarceration.

Disturbing United States Incarceration Statistics

  • Studies show that there approximately 7.4 million children who have parents that are incarcerated or under a correctional supervisor.
  • In 2007, a disproportionate number of fathers incarcerated in state prison were Black or Latino, with 42 percent being African-American and 20 percent being Latino.
  • Of fathers incarcerated in federal prison, 49 percent were African-American and 28 percent were Latino (Glaze and Maruschak, 2008).
  • Per the Bureau of Justice's statistics, an estimated 744,200 state and federal prisoners in the United States were fathers to 1,599,200 children under the age of 18 in 2007 (Glaze and Maruschak, 2008).
  • An unpublished estimate from Mumola suggests that 7,476,500 U.S. children have a parent (mother or father) who is in prison, in jail, or under correctional supervision (2006).

Incarceration Is a Racist Response to Non-Violent Crime

Although there are various crimes—such as sexual assault or murder—that call for incarceration as a solution, what about nonviolent crimes? 1 in 15 Blacks are incarcerated, and Black adults are arrested on drug charges at three to five times the rate of white adults despite similar use rates. Blacks are more subjected to mass incarceration than whites. Race appears to play a significant role in the mass incarceration issue.

Minorities are usually in the lower working class and below poverty, which increases their chance of incarceration at some point in their lives. Nonviolent offenders, particularly drug offenders, make up an increasing proportion of the U.S correctional population and are heavily represented among incarcerated parents (Western & Beckett 199, Mumola 2000).

Those who are in the higher-ranking classes are less likely to become a product of this so-called criminal judicial system. Per their social class, those that are wealthier (more whites than blacks) have access to better opportunities such as better schools and better jobs, which makes their chance of incarceration decrease significantly. 24 percent of African Americans and 21 percent of Latinos live or have lived in poverty. Per population numbers, minorities are three times as likely to become poor than Whites.

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Minorities, typically African Americans, are usually the lowest paid ethnicity group, and it has been that way for many years. Race and social class are often conflated with one another. Those that are in the lower working class, specifically minorities, are more likely to engage in non-violent crimes such as drug trafficking to provide their needs for survival.

How Can We Move Forward?

Is this modern form of slavery justifiable? If better education and opportunity presented themselves in poor communities, then there would not be a need to commit such nonviolent offenses. If the same money that is being used to maintain prisoners could be used to better our schools in poor communities. Then the number of offenders in prisoners could decrease significantly. Such crimes do not deserve the harsh treatment of incarceration.

Incarceration not only affects the offender but the family of the incarcerated as well. Why should families be torn apart because of a drug offense or other minor nonviolent crime? Children, parents, and spouses take responsibility for the burdens that come with mass incarceration. Many families provide financial, emotional, and physical support during and after incarceration. Many offenders face a difficult time obtaining employment, housing, and welfare because of the discrimination and regulations that have been placed upon them because of their background. The war on drugs was and is a way to maintain more offenders in prison rather than maintaining more people in our school systems to better their education, which will lead them to better employment opportunities.

Of course, there are positive outcomes for maintaining offenders in prison, especially if they have committed an offense such as murder or terroristic crimes. Some people in this world are dangerous criminals that do not deserve to remain in the general population. But do those that commit nonviolent crimes deserve to be subjected to the same harsh punishment of incarceration as those that commit a violent offense? This is where the unfairness of mass incarceration begins to take its toll on our communities as well as our economy.

As mentioned before, ex-offenders have difficulty obtaining work, housing, and even welfare because of government policy and regulations. To discriminate against a nonviolent ex-offender because of a mistake is not only unconstitutional, but it also causes a strain on our economy that contributes to the rise in unemployment and poverty. It is time to stop discriminating against the lower social class and provide better opportunities in those communities to tackle the war on drugs and mass incarceration.


  • Glaze, L.E., & Maruschak, L.M. Parents in prison and their minor children. Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report, Bureau of Justice Statistics. 2008.
  • Mumola, C. Incarcerated parents and children. Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2000.
  • Mumola, C. Presentation for the NIDA Research Meeting Children of Parents in the Criminal Judicial System: Children at Risk, 2006.
  • Western, B., & Beckett, K. How Unregulated is the U.S Labor Market? The Penal System as a Labor Market Institution. The American of Sociology, 199, 104, 1030-1060.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2017 Chernika Lipscomb

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