Actions That The Government Must Take to Address Mass Incarceration

05 May 2018


The United States has the highest mass incarceration rates in the world. Due to racial bias, minority groups have the highest rate of incarceration overall and tend to receive harsher sentences than whites. Recidivism, lack of support from the government, and stringent laws worsen the problem. Mass incarceration, not only causes hardships for the prisoner and his/her family, it is also a burden on society because of excessive costs for mass imprisonment. In order to reduce mass incarceration and minimize the financial stresses, new actions are needed from the government to address mass incarceration.


Mass incarceration is the drastic rise of incarcerated people in the United States, which has had larger impacts on both its citizen and its government for several decades. According to Dr. Kelly, a professor at University of Missouri, “Although the United States makes up only 5% of the world’s population, it now accounts for one-quarter of the world’s prisoners.” Comparing the population of the United States to other countries in the world, we infer that 25% of the world’s prisoners population comes from the United States alone which suggests it is treating its people with injustice and unfairness.

Graph 1: Prison Studies. Source: Drug Policy | Race and the Drug War

If we were to calculate the world incarceration rates from Graph 1 above, the United States exceeds India’s rates, 20.2 more times to be exact. Not only is the number of people incarcerated a problem, but the cost of mass incarceration and the burden for victims are overwhelmingly huge. There must be a solution to solve this crucial problem that plagues society as a whole.

Graph 2: U.S. State and Federal Prison Population From 1925 to 2014 | Criminal Justice Facts

The number of people who get arrested each year increases dramatically between 1984 to 2008. As one can observe Graph 2 in the year 1984, the population is approximately 300,000 prisoners while 2008 reaches the maximum prisoners that are held in prison with approximately 1.6 million people. Mass incarceration began as a policy with the War on Drugs in the early 1970s, where the government implemented drug prohibition policies in the United States and targeted vulnerable communities. In addition, there are many other factors that contribute to the statistics shown above, which can be explained by the followings:


Mass incarceration mainly affects people of color. According to Emily Baxter, an American attorney and a founder of We Are All Criminals exhibit, “1 in every 3 black men are likely to be caught and are being locked up in the land of the free while 1 in every 17 white men are likely to be caught” (Speech 2017). We can see that white men tend to get away with crimes because of their ‘white male privilege.’ In other words, white people are not being judged when they are walking from location A to location B while minorities are likely being judged, labeled, and discriminated against. They are considered as harmful to the surrounding areas.

As reported by Drug Policy Alliance, “Nearly 80% of people in federal prison and almost 60% of people in state prison for drug offenses are black or Latino” (“Drug”). Law enforcement are more likely to stop, search, arrest, and/or shoot anyone in minority communities. As Dr. Kelly notes, the rates of African-Americans and Hispanics have increased nearly twice as the rate of white men. The police get more funds from the government when they catch a person or a group doing some kind of drug-related activities. Police have targeted minority communities in their search for drug activity, supposedly because these are the communities where it is most likely that drug activity is happening. Shockingly, in reality, as stated by Michelle Alexander, the author of The New Jim Crow book, drug usage rates from white population and minority population are basically the same. With this information, we can conclude that much of the incarcerated population comes from communities that are in poverty and does not touched all communities equally.

An exhibit, We Are All Criminals (WAAC), displayed throughout the month of October in 2017 at Burton Hall at the University of Minnesota along with a speech given on mass incarceration from the exhibit founder and an American attorney, Emily Baxter, gives viewers the insight of what really is happening with mass incarceration in America today. The purpose of WAAC exhibit is to expose the reality of today’s society of what it means to be criminal. WAAC shows the big concept and effects of criminal records:

“Once a criminal, always a criminal,”
“Four in four people are criminals, but that’s not all we are”

This quote examines the true effects of those who are impacted by justice systems across the United States. All of us in today’s society are a criminal because we have at least committed a crime that we have never thought of, such as going over the speed limit, stealing from someone, forgetting to return a book to a library, drinking below the age limit, et cetera. Yet, we may have been lucky enough to never have gotten caught. The exhibit reveals many individuals with word descriptions shown on images who have gotten away with a specific crime, and how it may have impacted their lives greatly in the future based on whether that person is either white or black on the back of the image. The likelihood of a criminal getting caught and arrested by a law enforcement is very high for black males while white males significantly get fewer arrests when both males were to commit the same type of crime. In most cases, white males tend to get away with the crimes while minority males tend to be in jail and get harsher sentences.

An American lawyer and social justice activist, Bryan Stevenson, has written a book named Just Mercy that brings to light the many innocent African-American men who were falsely accused of a crime that they did not commit. These victims are accused because they are African Americans and are easily being targeted by other groups of people. The book mentions the case of Walter McMillian where he gets put in death row for six years for a murder of Ronda Morrison that he did not commit. In the book, mostly everyone in his community considers him as a respectful and generous man, but, a white man named Ralph Myers, who has a long criminal record, accused McMillian of the murder. Law enforcements and the judge, however, do not care but to believe the accusation from Myers and put McMillian in jail. Even though there was much evidence that McMillian did not commit a crime, and many witnesses remembered that McMillian was fixing his truck outside his house on the day that Morrison was murdered. McMillian was sent straight to death row on August 1st, 1987 (pg. 53). With many concerns from community members, the judge ordered McMillian case to another county. What seems to be unfair is that the judge picked the least number of black people who live in that county, which means the case can also be discriminatory due to lack of black jurors that can lead his case go wrong in many different ways. In the end, McMillian is freed with the help of Stevenson’s organization, Equal Justice Initiative. However, it is unfair and brings burden to McMillian, his family, and his community with the many years that he had to face in prison. McMillian’s case, along with the stories of many, many other individuals who fill the pages of Just Mercy, recognizes racial bias that pervades the American criminal justice system, and it must address immediately for future trials.


In accordance with Denis Madden, a chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee, states that two out of every three prisoners released will be rearrested within three years. This rate of recidivism is unacceptable in the U.S. When incarcerated people leave prisons, there is no guidance from anyone to help those who are out from jail due to lack of support from the government. Many individuals have spent most of their lives in prison and are unprepared to enter public life when they are released. They lack education, job skills, housing, and other forms of stability and support. Additionally, most employers, schools, and housings refuse applications when applicants have criminal records. Federal housings and food stamps have stringent laws where a person cannot get any help from the government when he/she is labeled as a criminal. As Baxter explains, “Once a criminal, always a criminal,” (Speech 2017). Without jobs, housing, or school to fill up the time, the likelihood that a person could become homeless is very high. Baxter also includes that crack is cheap and that it can take over the community easily (Speech 2017). Without anything else to do, rejected by a many places and discriminated against by specific laws, the chance that a previous felon gets exposed to drug-related activities is also high, which, in the end, leads that previous felon back to prison. This explains Madden’s statistic that shows many released prisoners get rearrested within three years. The arresting cycle seems to keep repeating itself and hopelessness seems to become commonplace for incarcerated people.


With millions of people getting incarcerated, the costs of mass incarceration is overwhelmingly huge. According to Just Mercy book by Bryan Stevenson, the cost of mass incarceration is $81 billion. The current cost, however, has increased dramatically within a few years since the book was published: $182 billion as of January 2017. If the government were to pay each student at the University of Minnesota tuition and fees ($14,417) for 50,000 students, the total would be $721 million. If we were to compare the cost of mass incarceration to tuition for 50,000 students at this university, mass incarceration exceeds by more than 750 times. This large amount of money is not a joke, and it should be minimized to be cost efficient. Currently, the cost of mass incarceration is mainly for public corrections agencies (prisons, jails, parole, and probation) costing $80.7 billion, but also for public employees at $28.4 billion, policing at $63.2 billion, judicial and legal at $29 billion, and much more (EJI Chart). This large sum of money is mostly paid by taxpayers and much of which is not necessary, such as $3.9 billion for private corrections and $374 million for private prison profits. Private prisons are such a dilemma because they are a waste of taxpayers’ money due to large profits earned for themselves while asking for more budget from the government.

In addition, Carimah Townes, journalist and research fellow with the Fair Punishment Project, explains that the “incarcerated population misses out on $70.5 billion in lost wages.” Not only that, but, she also points out that the amount of time it takes for family members to visit them instead of working results in $1 billion additional lost revenue, including the travel back and forth and communication (Carimah). When a person who is incarcerated in jail, his/her family members are likely to visit them often to meet and update how their lives are going. They also communicate by telephone, which costs roughly $1.2 billion annually. There are clearly many factors that add to the cost of mass incarceration – costs that create burdens for taxpayers and the families of those incarcerated, as well as profits for private corporations.



Rather than targeting neighborhoods that lack resources, education and employment with arrests, the government should seek to invest in and build up poor communities. The government should take actions to make classes in school that urge both children and adults to stay away from drug and crime related activities. For adults, these classes will also focus on helping them with how to find jobs that can be beneficial to them and their family, as well as to support whatever each individual needs to lift up the standards of living. Whereas for children, classes will focus more on academics and help them to grow and succeed throughout kindergarten to high school, and after college since most students in poorer communities tend to be first generation college students. These resources are needed because poorer communities are under resourced, while richer communities have the potential to access to these resources easily. The ability to add classes in school leads to fewer drug addicts and creates more powerful tools that can advance them in the future. This will also reduce the amount of the incarcerated population.

II. SUPPORT FOR RELEASED PRISONERS: When entering society, incarcerated people should have rights and opportunities for seeking employment, housing programs, and educational opportunities. Currently, once a prisoner leaves a facility, he/she has difficulty finding a job, a place to live, fulfilling college requirements, achieving citizenship, voting, financial aids, and much more due to federal records. These challenges can lead to homelessness and to a person being prone to committing illegal activities again. Strict laws should be changed so released prisoners can have a brand new life to start all over again, where he/she can work peacefully without any discrimination based on his/her background information; this will not only help that specific person, but also the society as a whole overall. In addition, the government should provide resources to allow released prisoners have the ability to get used to the new environment. This method has the ability to strengthen families and to assist them from poverty and hopelessness.


To fully end mass incarceration, the government first should eliminate policies for harsh mandatory minimum sentences for all people because these policies are mostly used against people of color. Referring back to Walter McMillian case, the judge and district attorney were being discriminatory against a black person, making McMillian’s trial unfair. If that judge were to have proper awareness, education, and training, he may not have done that. However, with new technologies today, there should be a TV where the judge would see altered race figures to animation and hear different voice so that the judge can decide a decision accurately and fairly without any racial biases among individuals in the courtroom.

IV. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE: As the world keeps getting more advanced day by day, the power of technology plays a huge role in our lives. By designing new algorithms, artificial intelligence (AI) can detect inmates when they are in danger or need help in jail. Since public employee costs $38.4 billion out of the $182 billion budget each year for human supervision, the government should consider spending that money on AI because contributing and developing AI only requires several years compare to the expenses for public employees 24/7 for the next fifty years. According to Antony Funnell, a professor and a journalist at ABC News, if humans were to monitor these offenders, the costs are likely to be very expensive, but with artificial intelligence, they are capable of having algorithms that can detect signs of a new crime or violation is about to be committed (Funnel). The cost could be cut back dramatically if AI were used as a replacement for personnel in facility systems. This is important because AI can act quickly detect harmful things that could be prevented in the future, as well as saving a big portion of public employee cost as a part of the total mass incarceration expense.


Addressing the issue of mass incarceration is very important since it creates many hardships for individuals and society as a whole. Time has shown that this is the the solution to end the war on drugs. There are many goals that the government must set in order to minimize the cost of incarcerated individuals. America invests far to much financially into mass incarceration. Furthermore, we see repeated racial bias happening in our social justice system, not only with the judges but the police as well. The arrest cycle then keeps repeating itself with released prisoners, burdens society even more. Within the next ten years, mass incarceration is expected to exceed $1 trillion. The government must consider ways to eliminate mass incarceration, such as investing in communities, supporting released prisoners, addressing implicit bias, and adding new technology for prison and community safety. Some of these solutions will create an initial large cost, but when compared to long-term mass incarceration costs, there will be long term decreases in spending which will allow the economy stabilize and grow.