Mass Incarceration

  • Uncategorized

Mass incarceration4



Researchand Writing 303 RQ2


December10, 2015.


AltonMills was 25 years old when he was arrested in 1994 due to minor drugcharges. Therefore, he was charged as a drug dealer and sentenced toprison. He was caught for the same reason twice before and releasedon a probation period. But at third time he was sentenced with lifetime imprisonment without parole. He has been in prison for the last21 years. Offenders like this are the majority of criminalsincarcerated today. This harsh punishment was given by the Departmentof Justice due to the mandatory minimum law which gives an individualwho commits a drug related offense three strikes before imprisonment.

Theterm is a term used to describe the currentAmerican incarceration system. The crime rates in America are greaterthan any other country in the world. Since 1980, the US crime ratehas quadrupled. According to President Barack Obama, in the UnitedStates of America there are 2.4 million people still in prison. Forinstance, the numbers of average inmates who are incarcerated wasabout 716 out of the average 100,000 population per state compared toother countries where their average is 155 incarcerated people out ofthe average 100,000 population (Wyler, 2015, para 1). This dataillustrates that mass incarceration is a problem in American societybecause it compares America’s state level incarceration toincarceration in other countries.

Thelarge numbers of mass incarceration in American states outweighs thesmall numbers of incarceration in other countries. Therefore, thisproves that America’s level of mass incarceration has increaseddrastically even more than other countries. The Mandatory Minimum lawis said to be the cause of America’s high level of massincarceration. Similar to Alton Mills, many non-violent drugoffenders have been imprisoned after three instances of drug relatedcrimes, such as possession and drug dealing.

Myresearch question is: Will abolishing the mandatory minimum lawreduce mass incarceration? Due to the emotions produced by thiscontroversy, there is a clear statement given by President Obama thatprisons are full of prisoners with crack offenses without violentbehavior. Therefore, this is a reason why we need to remove themandatory minimum law which will ultimately decrease the massincarceration rate. The following questions listed below will bediscussed in this paper.

  1. Are drug offenders receiving a fair punishment for their crimes?

  2. Why there are so many people are still incarcerated, even though the crime rate has declined? Still need to answer this question.

  3. What problems arise from maintaining the implementation of the mandatory minimum law?

  4. How we can resolve this issue?

Manydrug offenders are still incarcerated because the crime theycommitted was punished unfairly by the judicial system. There aremany examples such as Bernard Noble, a 48-year-old man, who wassentenced to 13.3 years of prison in Louisiana in 2011 for drugpossession despite the fact that he was only carrying two marijuanacigarettes in his pocket. He was sentenced to a maximum term withoutthe option of parole. On the other hand, on June 7, 2015 around 8 pm,four teenagers raped a sixteen year old girl in Monroe, Louisiana.The four teens were charged with possession and distribution of childpornography. One of the boys was released on a bond for $425,000paying only $25,000. In comparing both cases, Bernard Noble seems tohave received a much harsher punishment which is not very reasonablein relation to his crime. Why under the law, a much more heinouscrime such as rape is minimized, allowing these four teenagers whoraped someone to walk away free and even receiving clemency by havingtheir bail amount reduced? Theunfair judgment given to non-violent drug offenders is unnecessary.Most non violent drug offenders tend to be given maximum sentence forpossession and involvement in drug dealings. These people may not beas dangerous to the society as other violent offenders. As such, itis unfair to award them longer sentences when letting go of moredangerous criminals like rapists or assault offenders who are moreviolent.

Thenumber of people incarcerated remains quite high despite the rate ofcrime having gone down in the last two decades. One of the reasonswhy incarcerations are still high as argued by Professor John Pfaffof Fordham Law School, is due to the increase in police efficiency(Neyfakh 2015 para 17). With improved policing technologies and newpolicing approaches, police are able to make more arrests of allkinds of offenders. In addition to improved policing, the number ofoffenders has gone up because there is longer sentencing for mostoffenders especially those arrested for drugs.

Ultimately,the number of incarceration remains high as putting people behindbars foe even minor crimes not only ruins lives, but also act as acollege for crime. According to a study by a Michigan UniversityProfessor Michael Mueller-Smith, prison terms do not actuallyrehabilitate criminals or change them into law abiding people butrather harden them for future crimes (Politico, 2015 para4). According to the study, about 75 percent of former inmates arerearrested within five years of their freeing date. In each year thata person spends in jail raises the likelihood of returning to crimeby 12.4 percent (Politico, 2015 para5). Besides, individuals accusedof committing minor offenses usually end up committing more seriouscrimes after serving a term in prison. As a result, the people wholeave prison after serving their term get back to jail sooner orlater for other crimes.

Manybelieve that some changes should be implemented on the MandatoryMinimum law as it should fit the severity of the crime and not bebased solely on the fact that a crime was committed. Hilary Clintonis one of many who have voiced their opinion on reforming mandatoryminimum sentences. She also believes in shortening the sentences andgiving judges more power to use their discretion when determining thelength of the sentence imposed. Hillary has expressed that thesentences for non-violent drug offenses should be cut in half. Shealso proposes a less broad definition regarding how automaticpenalties are imposed even when there are prior offenses known asstrikes. She believes that under certain circumstances, judges shouldbe able to use their discretion to impose sentences below themandatory minimum if applicable to the case.

Themass incarceration could be resolve by the help of judicial system.Many prisoners are still incarcerated because the crime theycommitted was punished unfairly by the judicial system. The judicialsystem is allegedly in need of change of how prosecutors operate inthe courtroom, thus enabling judges to make fair and just decisions.This result is only seen in mandatory minimum sentences sotherefore, many Americans are still incarcerated due to unfairsentences under the three strikes law.

Regardlessof common acceptance that mass incarceration is a serious issue thatneeds to be addressed, the national conversation is still mean on thedetails on what it will take to achieve significant and sustainablereduction. Apart from policy change on minimum sentence and the threestrikes law, more need to be done. States must come up with ways oflimiting prison admissions to new crimes only and divert parole andprobation to significantly reduce the number of people in prison.Another measure that could be taken is to review the way in which todeal with drug and property crimes. Drug possession especially forconsumption purposes either for recreation or medicinal purposesshould not be considered crime. Instead, the law should focus more onincarcerating drug barons and other major drug offenders. Inaddition, reduced jail terms for violent offenders also need to beaddressed particularly first time offenders of violent crimes.

Increasedincarceration is as a result of increased drug offenders and otherswith less serious offenses in prison. A more comprehensive approachshould be implemented to deal with these groups if the United Statesmust realize reduced mass incarceration. According to urban a loftygoal is expected to reduce prison population by 37 percent by 2021while halving the length of incarceration will reduce massincarceration by 39 percent.

Today,more than one young man from every neighborhood is in prison. Theyoung lives are getting ruined. The judicial system should releaseall elderly people because they are not harmful to the societyanymore and as well as the non-violent drug offenders who don’thave any criminal background history. Many citizens have beenunjustly condemned with harsh punishments despite the fact that itwas their first crime. The criminal justice system should releaseelderly non-violent crime offenders so they can spend their remainingdays with their families. Moreover, they should open rehabilitationcenters so they can help them recover. In fact, growing numbers ofprisons are a burden on taxpayers by maintaining the high costs onprisons and prisoners.

Massincarceration is a controversial issue like most criminal justiceissues. Some scholars like Mauer and Cole have argued that, the wayto end mass incarceration is reducing sentence for violent offenders.According to them sentences for violent criminals should be halved.“Studies have found that longer sentences do not have appreciablygreater deterrent effects many serious crimes are committed bypeople under the influence of alcohol or drugs, who are notnecessarily thinking of the consequences of their actions, andcertainly are not affected by the difference between a 15-year and a30-year sentence.” (Sterbenz, 2015 para4). Violent offendersusually ‘age out’ as argued by Mauer and Cole. For instance, aperson who commits a violent crime at age 25 poses little or nothreat by 35 or 40 years. According to the authors, there are aboutquarter a million inmates over 50 years of age in the United States.These prisoners pose little threat and should thus be released to thesociety to live their last years of freedom (Sterbenz, 2015 para7).

MandatoryMinimum Sentence

Mandatoryminimum has been a controversial topic for quite some time. Themandatory minimum law was implemented within the judicial system inthe 1970s. Mandatory minimum sentences require individuals to spend acertain number of years in jail regardless of the crime committed orthe circumstances surrounding it. This law limits judicialdiscretion therefore individuals who are convicted are forced toserve a set minimum of years regardless of the case in question.

Themandatory minimum is not as effective as it was perceived to be as ithasn’t reduced the crime of drug offenders. In 1970, Former HouseSpeaker, Tip O’Neil set the guidelines for the crime 45 years agoas follows: “First time offenders caught with 5 grams of crackcocaine would get a mandatory minimum of five years, while those whowere caught with 50 grams would get 10 years and anyone convicted ofbeing involved in a continuing criminal enterprise received 20 yearsentences”. (Stewart,2015, para4). Despite the fact that peopleknow they can be punished with extremely harsh sentences, they takethe risk because of their difficult and intense circumstances whichlead them to believe that the only way they can survive is to becomeinvolved in criminal activities.

Lately,it has been brought up by several politicians who believe somechanges should be implemented. Not only politicians but also theAttorney General, Eric Holder whohas led reforms on the mandatory minimum sentence on drug non violentdrug offenders. In fact sentencing reform project has been one ofAG’s key initiatives. He argues that from the reforms, governmentdrug prosecutors are increasingly shifting away from pursuingmandatory minimums at record rates while maintaining toughersentences for more serious criminals.Ina speech, the AG said“Foryears prior to this administration, federal prosecutors were not onlyencouraged – but required – to always seek the most severe prisonsentence possible for all drug cases, no matter the relative riskthey posed to public safety.&nbsp I have made a break from thatphilosophy,” (Justice News, 2015 para4). PresidentBarack Obama also has called for an overhaul or elimination of themandatory minimum sentences. He believes it harms our country morerather than help. He considers probation as an alternative to prisonfor non-violent federal offenders. He stated that in many situationsthe punishment does not fit the crime and that individuals that havecompleted their sentences should not be barred from obtainingemployment or voting. U.S. House Representatives have been working ona bill to modify some provisions of the law. The bill would reducethe sentences for two and three strike non-violent offenders.Advocates believe the changes would be just and would also reduceovercrowding within the prison system. This bill is receivingpositive feedback from the chairmen of the House and Senate judiciarycommittee.

MandatoryMinimum law does not seem to be helping the nation since the massincarceration rate of young men is increasing each day. The prisonshave become heavily overcrowded with a lot of non-violent drugoffenders (Wolfgang 2010, para4). This is the real reason why theprison population is higher than ever. President Barack Obama evenstated in his last meeting in Philadelphia on July 14, 2015 thatthere is a need for “an overhaul of the prison system and an end ofmandatory sentences for nonviolent drug offenders”. He also urgedCongress to revamp sentencing guidelines so that individual judgesand prosecutors have more discretion and aren’t bound by mandatoryminimums (Wolfgang 2010, para2). This is perhaps the first steptowards reducing the punishment time frame that will be served bycriminals.

Forinstance, Bernard’s charges are not considered a crime in otherstates such as Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and&nbspWashington(Becker, 2015, para6). In these states, possession and dealingof marijuana islegal for medical and recreational uses. However, medical use ofmarijuana has also been legal in New York since June 19, 2014. Thiscan possibly be the first step towards a full legalization of thesubstance which means it will be legalized for medical andnon-medical purposes. In Oregon and Colorado, marijuana has beendecriminalized and is taxed like other recreational substances suchas alcohol and tobacco. The legalization of cannabis will preventmany law-abiding citizens from being labeled unfairly as criminals.

Onthe other hand, many people believe that possession of bhang couldleads to death of innocent people. Some people also believe thatmandatory sentences may lead to a decline in non-violent crimesbecause people will get scared of long punishments. Additionally, thejudicial system creates mandatory sentences so that every individualis equally charged for the same crime. With this system in force,judges are bound to eliminate bias towards the person they like thusresulting in complete removal of lenient decisions. Without certainguidelines or specific law stating the decision for a particularsituation, the judges may consider having the authority to give abiased decision. Therefore, this is why it seemed unnecessary for themandatory sentences system to be put in place.

Mandatoryminimum sentences are not cost effective for the United Stateseconomy. In a speech delivered by President Obama in Philadelphia hesaid the United States spends approximately $80 billion per year onincarcerations a number that is rising as the American Prisonpopulation continues to rise (Wolfgang2010, para5).

ThreeStrikes law

Thethree-strike law is a law which raises the jail sentences ofindividuals convicted of a crime who have been in the past convictedof two or more other crimes, one of which has to be a serious crimeand the other probably a serious drug crime. This law limits thechances of an offender to receive another sentence other than a lifesentence. This law is blamed for the high number of prisoners in theUnited States. The law was passed in 1993 by Washington voters whenthey approved initiative 593 (Vollaard,2013).Other states also followed and enacted the law.

Theimpact of three-strike law can be analyzed by state. In Californiafor example, the courts have sent more than 80,000 second timeoffenders otherwise known as second strikers and about 7,500 thirdstrikers to jail since its implementation in 1994 (Vollaard,2013).The law contributes significantly the number of prisoners in stateand federal prisons across the country.

Argumentsthat the three-strike law is unfair have dominated judicial reforms.It is argued that the law has increased the number of people behindbars serving life imprisonment for crimes that could otherwise fetcha considerable sentence. For example, a person previously chargedwith assaulting a police officer and robbery with violence which bothare serious crimes may end up serving a lifetime if convicted thethird time for handling stolen property which is a less seriouscrime.


Mandatorysentences laws were created in response to the drug war which startedto quadruple 45 years ago and are still going on in 2015. This is whythe mandatory minimum sentences should be eliminated. This lawportrays ineffectiveness as it only increased the population inprisons, rather than finding a solution for eliminating thenon-violent drug offender’s crime.


Becker,S. (2015, October 15). 7 States on the verge of Marijuanalegalization.


JusticeNews (2015 Feb 17). InMilestone for Sentencing Reform, Attorney General Holder AnnouncesRecord Reduction in Mandatory Minimums Against Nonviolent DrugOffenders. Retrieved

King,R. Peterson, B., Elderbroom, B. and Pelletier E. (n.d). Reducing Requires Far-Reaching Reforms. Retrieved

Michels,S. (2012, July 1). Rethinking tough on crime. Academicsearch complete Database. Retrieved

NeyfakhL. (2015 Feb 6). Why Are So Many Americans in Prison? Retrieved

Politico(2015 July 24). Mass imprisonment policy in US begets more crime –study. Retrieved

Reilly,Ryan J. &amp Knafo S. (2013, November 13). These 32 people arespending their lives in prison for non-violent crimes. TheHuffington Post.Retrieved from

SterbenzC. (2015 May 27). The New York Times published a shocking proposal tosolve America`s huge prison problem. Retrieved

Stegall,A.(2015, July 13). 4 arrested in aggravated rape of from

Stewart,D.( 2015, September 13). Rethinking Mandatory Sentences. from

Vollaard,B. (2013). Preventing crime through selective incapacitation*. TheEconomic Journal,123(567),262-284.

Wegman,J.(2014, July 28). The Injustice of Marijuana Arrests. NewYork Times.Retrieved from

William,J.( 2015, March 9). 13 years in prison for two marijuana joints?Bernard Noble supporters cry

foul.The from


Wyler,G. (2014, July 6). The Mass incarceration Problems in America. Thenews.vice.comRetrievedfrom

Close Menu