Tackling Mass Incarceration Requires More Than Freeing Nonviolent Drug Offenders

In 2020, the number of Americans in U.S. prisons and jails decreased substantially by 25% and 15% respectively. A new report by the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) says that these drops are largely due pandemic-related system bottlenecks. These led to a 40% decrease in prison admissions despite the fact that prison releases fell. The United States had an alarmingly high rate of incarceration, with nearly 2 million people still in prisons.

PPI reports disproves several popular myths concerning the causes of mass imprisonment in the United States. This report reveals that drugs are not as important as we think, that there is a misinterpretation of the difference between violence and nonviolent crime, and that almost half of all people in prison are held without conviction. If the aim is to bring the incarceration rates in line with other liberal democracies, a deeper understanding of these factors will reveal that most of the reforms proposed are not effective.

The U.S. clearly stands out in terms of the percentage behind bars, even if you discount the official figures from dictatorial governments such as China or Cuba. U.S. imprisonment rate for 2020 was 573/100,000 residents. That’s more than fourfold the rate in England, Wales, France and Italy respectively, as well as more than six times and eight times, respectively, in Germany and Japan.

The U.S. has a much higher rate of crime than many other countries. However, this does not explain the large gap in incarceration rates. The overall U.S. criminal rate stands at 47.7 for every 100,000 inhabitants, according to World Population Review. This compares to 46.07 in Great Britain and 51.99 in France. 44.58 is in Italy. 35.79 is Germany. 22.19 in Japan. What is most important, however, is not how many crimes are committed but rather the severity of penalties.

The PPI report states that in 2020 the U.S. held 374,000 drug offenders at any one time. That is quite a number of people who are being imprisoned for acts which violate no rights. Yet, they accounted for only 14 percent of state prisoners and 21 percent of local prisoners. In the federal system they play an even greater role. They account for nearly half of all prisoners and a third of those in prison. However, only 11% of all prisoners were in the federal system.

According to the PPI, “4/5 people are in jail or prison for something else than a drug crime.” This means that even if all nonviolent drug offenders were freed, America would continue to have an extremely high rate of incarceration. The report states that mass incarceration must be ended. “We will need to alter how society and the criminal justice system react to drug possession crimes.” People must not be incarcerated for benigner behaviors.

In 2020, nearly three-fifths (35%) of all state prison inmates were considered “violent”, a classification that criminal justice reforms rarely address. Politicians and the public often assume that violent offenders present a threat to public security. However, this is not always true. According to the PPI report, this category could include anyone who has not physically hurt someone, like purse snatchers or burglars of unoccupied houses, as well as methamphetamine manufacturers.

Although most offenders who are considered “violent” do commit acts of violence, that does not mean they should be kept in prison for as long as is necessary. PPI reports that violent criminals’ and sex-offenders have recidivism rates that are low. They also fall with age. It raises concerns about the safety of keeping them locked up. According to the PPI report, although violence risk is highest in early adulthood or adolescence and declines over time, people are still incarcerated long after that point.

However, this is not the ideal outcome for most victims of crime. An Alliance for Safety and Justice 2016 survey revealed that crime victims preferred rehabilitation and prevention over long jail sentences. If politicians were to learn from the crime victims they should be focusing on prevention and not retribution. Evidence supports this approach. It is clear that the speed and likelihood of punishment are more important when deterring crimes than their severity.

“As lawmakers and the public increasingly agree that past policies have led to unnecessary incarceration,” the report says, “it’s time to consider policy changes that go beyond the low-hanging fruit of ‘non-non-nons’—people convicted of non-violent, non-serious, non-sexual offenses….If we are serious about ending mass incarceration, we will have to change our responses to more serious and violent crime.”

It is clear that mass incarceration must address violent criminals, but it does not change the fact that the United States still locks up many people who are guilty of lesser offenses. In addition to 146,000 drug offenders, for example, state  prisons in 2020 held 124,000 people for “public order” offenses, including illegal gun possession and driving under the influence. The PPI report states that “at most 153,000 persons were imprisoned for non-criminal violation of probation or parole” in 2019. “technical violations.”

Misdemeanor sentences made up a quarter the jail population in 2020. PPI reports that defendants can be sent to jail regardless of whether they are convicted. Judges will often issue bench warrants when a defendant does not appear at court, or fails to pay any fines.

The vast majority of the 547,000 people in local jails—more than 80 percent—had not been convicted. Pretrial detention is often used as a form of poverty punishment. Many people ended up in prison because they were unable to afford bail.

Left-leaning criminal justice and reformers recognize the importance of bail reform but may place their priority in another way. PPI reports discredits the belief that “private prisons” are corrupt and cause mass incarceration. They note that these facilities only hold about 8% of the population. The report states that the vast majority of prisoners are held in public prisons or jails. The report states that some countries have more prisoners in private prisons than others. Has lobbied to maintain high levels of incarceration, but private prisons are essentially a parasite on the massive publicly owned system—not the root of it.”

To address mass imprisonment, it is essential to have a clear assessment of those in prison and their motivations. Also, it requires serious reflection on the goals of incarceration. The system must do better at focusing its attention on those who are a threat to the public’s safety and should be locked up.