Mass Incarceration

President Obama in July, becoming the first sitting president to visit a federal prison

What's happening?

This month, the federal government will release 6,000 inmates—the largest release of federal prisoners in history. Separately, President Obama recently granted clemency to 46 nonviolent drug offenders, whom he said were serving sentences disproportionate to their crimes. Both moves are part of a larger bipartisan movement to curb "mass incarceration," a term used in recognition of the fact that the United States has a significantly higher incarceration rate than any other nation in the world.


The numbers are stark; though the US makes up on 4.4% of the world's population, it holds 22% of the world's prisoners. For every 100,000 in population, the US imprisons 751 people. The median among other nations is just 125. What's more, these statistics don't include people on probation and parole. In total, roughly 7 million Americans are supervised by the criminal justice system—1 in every 34 adults.


The numbers vary wildly by race: 1 in every 106 white men is incarcerated. For black men, it's 1 in every 15. Black men under 35 with no high school diploma are now more likely to be in jail than employed full-time.


This wasn't always true. Though relatively stable from the early 1900's until the 1970's, the US rate of imprisonment more than quadrupled in the last forty years. This explosive increase in prison population has happened regardless of violent crime rates. Reasonable people disagree about the causes of this dramatic growth. Among the causes are: 

Mandatory Minimums

President Obama has called mandatory minimums the "primary driver" of mass incarceration in the United States. Mandatory minimum laws establish uniform sentencing policies that limit judicial discretion. First found in the Boggs Act of 1951, mandatory sentencing expanded with a strong emphasis on drug crimes—as in the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. Also in the 1980's, federal mandatory minimums were codified in the US Federal Sentencing Guidelines. In theory, these guidelines help ensure defendants in similar situations receive similar sentences. In practice, however, they have been criticized by Republicans and Democrats alike for being racially unjust, "excessively severe," and a major cause of swelling prisoner numbers. 

War on Drugs

Mass incarceration is in part the result of mandatory minimums; in turn, mandatory minimums derive from the "war on drugs." Responding to the increase in drug use of the 1960's, in 1971 President Nixon declared drugs "public enemy number one." What followed would result in a $1 trillion domestic and international campaign in the name of eradicating drugs, including military forceseizure of private property, and mandatory sentencing. 

Why is this important?

Despite disagreement on what caused prisoner numbers to explode, there is now growing bipartisan support for change. Republican former Speaker of the House John Boehner criticized imprisoning people "who really don't need to be there" and called for criminal justice reform. Congresspeople of both parties have become vocal proponents of change. Most importantly, recent polls show voters on both sides overwhelmingly support reform. This seems to be a "tipping point" for criminal justice reform—a long time coming. 

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