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Analysis Of The United States Prison System

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Category: Social Issues

Autor: anton 05 March 2011

Words: 1694 | Pages: 7


In the past thirty years, the United States has moved into a “get tough on crime” era. This can be seen through many enactments and sentencing policies, that have been created since 1980. While crime rates overall have been going down, we have seen a massive increase in the U.S. prison populations, causing large financial and social burdens. This paper will analyze this increase, and the sentencing initiatives behind it.


Internationally, prison is the term used for the institutions that hold those who have been convicted of a serious offense. In the United States however, the term prison refers to the state and federal institutions where offenders are sent for a year or more, after sentencing. Most people use the terms ‘jail’ and ‘prison’ interchangeably, a jail however is a temporary holding cell where an offender is placed during trial. Below is a brief history of the development of the American penal system.

A. Solitary System

The Quakers first created the penitentiary as a means for offenders to repent their sins and eventually rejoin society. This idea led to the development of the first American prisons around 1790. These early prisons were based on silence and repenting, and in most cases run by religious personnel. This model was called the Solitary system, and quickly spread through Europe (Tonry).

B. Progressive reform era

By 1877, the second wave, known as the Progressive Reform Era, was underway. Prisons in this era were based on rehabilitation through educational efforts. Once inmates were deemed reformed they were released back into society. Although courts preached rehabilitation, little authority was placed over prison personal, and correctional facilities became brutal un-checked institutions. By the 1960’s and 1970’s, indeterminate sentencing was seen as a failure, and recidivism rates were shown to be high. The human rights movements and the racism that developed in prisons caused many racially surged riots to take place in prisons. The most notable riot was New York’s Attica riot in 1971. Prisons were seen as out of control, and by 1980 prisons in more than 40 states came under federal court control (Tonry).

C. The Return to Punishment

The United States current correctional era is known as the Return to Punishment. Prisons can no longer be seen as correctional institutions. Criminologist Hans Tochs called prisons “a human warehouse with a jungle like underground” (Samaha). In the 1980’s, crime became the main agenda of almost every politician, and the “get tough on crime” era began. Parole release was abolished by 15 states, conditions in prisons were made less comfortable, and treatment programs gave way to increase cost.


A. World Comparison

The number prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants of a nation measure prison population. There are many ways of making these measurements. Many statistics separate those in jail from those in prison. For the purposes of this paper we will consider all those being held in jail and prison because they are all a burden to the tax payers. To the side (figure1) you can see the massive increase in the United States incarceration rates since 1980.

People typically try to relate prison populations with crime rates. This has many flaws and drawbacks.

First of all, countries that are politically and socially similar can have large differences in their prison populations; for instance, Canada’s rate in 2002 was 103 and the United States was 709 (Christie). Russia is a country that is dramatically different than the United States, however they have been our closest competitors in prison population rates; in 2002, their rate was 640. Secondly when studying historical trends in prison rates increases and decreases have been shown to be linked to nation’s political movements, not crime rates (Christie)

From 1925-1972, incarceration rates fluctuated between 90 and 130 per 100,000 residents, which showed a relatively stable rate. Since 1972, however, the rates have increased every year (Renshaw). Patterns of imprisonment can be affected by a nation’s ideologies on punishments. Many European countries believe that crime is influenced by social conditions and inadequate socialization, and punishment is unlikely to affect crime rates. Because of this ideology only 1 to 3 % of prison sentences in Europe are for 2 years or longer, and their

incarceration rate is only 124 (Christie). United States ideology, as seen through their policy makers, is that crime is a product of wrongful moral choices, punishment effects crime rates, sentences should be harsh to have a deterrent effect, and sentences should be lengthy to incapacitate repeat offenders. Because of this ideology in 1991 56 % of state prisoners were serving sentences 10 years or longer (Tonry).

B. Inmate Populations

As of 2003, there are currently 2,085,620 people under correctional supervision in the United States. In 1980 there were 503,586 prisoners (Harrison). These numbers do not count those who are on probation or parole. Prisons are built to hold a certain amount of inmates. This is known as designed capacity. In 2003 23 state and federal prisons reported that they were operating above their designed capacity (Harrison).

There is a large racial gap in our prisons (see figure 2). In 2003, 44% of all inmates were African American compared to 35% white (Harrison). It is estimated that 1 in every 3 African American males is or has been in the prison system. African Americans are less than 15 % of the U.S. population, but nearly 50 % of all Incarcerated offenders (Walker). Many people have the misconception that the United States prison system is reserved for violent offenders. As shown below (figure 3), 53.4% of inmates are drug offenders (Beck).

Types of Offenses back to top

Drug Offenses: 90,635 (53.4 %)

Weapons, Explosives, Arson: 22,628 (13.3 %)

Immigration: 19,065 (11.2 %)

Robbery: 10,067 (5.9 %)

Burglary, Larceny, Property Offenses: 6,870 (4.1 %)

Extortion, Fraud, Bribery: 6,993 (4.1 %)

Homicide, Aggravated Assault, and Kidnapping Offenses: 5,393 (3.2 %)

Miscellaneous: 3,784 (2.2 %)

Sex Offenses: 1,806 (1.1 %)

Banking and Insurance, Counterfeit, Embezzlement: 925 (0.5 %)

Courts or Corrections: 721 (0.4 %)

Continuing Criminal Enterprise: 601 (0.4 %)

National Security: 108 (0.1 %)

* Data calculated for those with offense-specific information available.

Figure 3: Breakdown of offense type committed by incarcerated offenders (Beck).


A. Mandatory Minimum Sentencing

Between 1985 and 1991, Congress enacted over 20 mandatory minimum sentencing laws; almost every state enacted at least one (Beckett). When faced with a crime that falls under these statuettes, all personal information of the offender is omitted and only the crime is looked at. While the original intent was to create longer sentences for violent crimes, these policies have mostly affected drug sentencing. In federal court, 5 grams of crack cocaine, 100 grams of heroin, and 1 gram of LSD get you 5 years in prison (Donziger). Between 1980 and 1999, the number of drug offenders in prisons increased from 40,000 to 453,000, this is an increase of more than 1000% (Beckett)

B. Three Strikes

“Three strikes your out” is a popular policy where an offenders second offense receives a harsher sentence, and the third offense gives the offender life in prison. Since 1993, 25 states have enacted the three strikes laws. These laws were also aimed at increasing violent criminal’s sentences. In California, as of 2001 70% of all second strike cases and 60% of all third strike cases were for nonviolent offenders. Right now in California there are 344 inmates serving life sentences for petty theft, in 2026 there will be 30,000 inmates serving life sentences in California if these policies are continued to be applied (Beckett).

C. Truth in sentencing

This statue requires offenders to serve their full sentences instead of possibly being paroled because of good conduct. This popular policy represents the last leg in the shift towards a punishment system. States, in 1994, did not receive extra prison funding if they did not require felony offenders to serve 85% of their sentence (Grimes). Because judges refuse to lower sentence lengths, truth in sentence has increased the average prison sentences for offenders.


The United States has been responsible for the creation and implementation of most organized prison systems, around the world. We began with a harsh system, and then finally moved into a system based on rehabilitation. In the past 30 years, while most of the world has followed these principles of rehabilitation, the U.S. has moved away from them. A new prison system based on punishment has been developed through sentencing practices. We now have a prison population of over 2 million, and the cost to the taxpayers is enormous, every tax-paying citizen spends over 150 dollars a year on our prison system. If these increases in population and cost stay constant, we will not be able to support this system in the future without drastic reform.


Beck, A., July 1995. Violent Offenders in State Prison: Sentences and Time Served, Bureau of Justice Statistics Selected findings, U.S. Department of justice.

Beckett, K., Sasson, T., 2004. The Politics of Injustice, Crime and Punishment in America, 2nd ed., Sage publications.

Bonczar, T., August 2003. Prevalence of Imprisonment in The U.S. Population, Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report, U.S. Department of justice.

Christie, Z., 2002. Imprisonment: Sociological Aspects, University of Oslo, Norway, International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, Pages 7248 7251.

Ditton, P., January 1999. Truth in Sentencing in State Prisons, Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report, U.S. Department of justice.

Donziger, S. R., 1996. The Real War on Crime, the report of the National Criminal Justice Commission, New York, Harper Perennial.

Fried, R., 2001. Punishment Comparative Politics of, international encyclopedia of the social and behavioral sciences, Pages 12603-12606.

Grimes, P., Rogers, K., 1999. Truth-in-Sentencing, Law Enforcement, and Inmate Population Growth, College of Business and Industry, Mississippi State University, MS USA, Journal of Socio-Economics issue 28, pages 745-757.

Harrison, P., November 2004. Prisoners 2003, Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report, U.S. Department of justice.

Renshaw, B., December 1982. Prisoners 1925-1981, Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report, U.S. Department of justice.

Samaha, j., 2001. Criminal justice, 5th ed. Wadsworth publishing.

Scalia, J., August 2001. Federal Drug Offenders, 1999 with trends 1984-99, Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report, U.S. Department of justice.

Stephan, J., June 2004. State Prison Expenditures, Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report, U.S. Department of justice.

Tonry M., 2004. Prisons and Imprisonment, International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, Pages 12062-1206.

Walker, S., Spohn, C., Dolone, M., 2004. The Color of Justice, Race Ethnicity, and Crime in America, 3rd ed, Wadsworth Publishing.

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