Why Are So Many Americans in Prison in 2021?
By late 2020, there were 1.8 million people in prison. This was a drop from 2.1 million in 2019 – and definitely quite a bit lower than the peak of 2.3 million people in 2008.
Even so, The United States still has the highest prison rate in the world (around 655 prisoners per 100,000 people, in June 2020). However, the US doesn’t even appear in the top 10 countries for the highest crime rate.
So what’s driving this level of incarceration? There are a number of different factors involved.
470,000 People Who Can’t Pay Bail Are Locked in Local Jails
Shockingly, a large number of people are locked up in jail simply because they can’t raise enough money to cover bail. The average bail amount for felonies is $10,000, which amounts to 8 months’ income for a typical person who’s jailed because they can’t pay bail.
1 in 5 People are Incarcerated for a Drug Offense
While there is a widespread assumption that releasing non-violent drug offenders would dramatically decrease the size of the prison population, the reality is that only 1 in 5 people are incarcerated for a drug-related offense. This is still a huge proportion of prisoners, of course.
While the “war on drugs” has decreased drug use, it’s also put a lot of people in jail or prison – and it hasn’t done much to reduce the availability of drugs. Many experts believe treatment would be a much better option than imprisonment and some congressional candidates have campaigned on a platform of reigning in the war on drugs.
Misdemeanors (Low-Level Offenses) Account for Over 25% of the Daily Jail Population
An estimated 13 million misdemeanor charges like jaywalking are brought every year in America. This means that people may face jail time for a minor offense, while awaiting trial.
Racial Disparities in the Criminal Justice System
At every level of the criminal justice system, there are racial disparities. African Americans are more likely to be arrested than white Americans. They’re more likely to be convicted, and they’re likely to face a stiffer sentence.
For instance, for US residents born in 2001, 1 in 3 black men and 1 in 18 black women can be expected to be imprisoned at some point in their life. This compares with 1 in 17 white men and 1 in 111 white women.
How Families Stay in Touch With Imprisoned Relatives, e.g. in New York State
With so many Americans in jail or prison, it’s perhaps no surprise that half of all Americans have family members who’ve been incarcerated.
Family members can look up an inmate in an online database, such as for New York State. They can then stay in touch in a number of ways including:
- Sending letters and photos (the institution may have specific guidance on what can and cannot be included, e.g. photos may need to be under a certain size).
- Sending gifts, such as books (these usually need to be sent from approved bookstores).
- Receiving phone calls. Making a call from prison can be expensive, so many family members will deposit money into the prisoner’s account to help them make calls.
- Visiting. Friends and relatives need to be on a prisoner’s approved list of visitors in order to be able to visit.
There are a lot of complex reasons behind the high number of prisoners incarcerated in the USA. Some of these stem back many years, such as the war on drugs, and racial inequalities. While the prison population has decreased a little in recent years, it’s still the case that the USA locks up a higher percentage of its population than any other country in the world.
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