Composition Paper on Incarceration in the U.S.

Incarceration in the U.S.

Incarceration rates in the U.S. are among the highest in the world, even with most countries worldwide predominantly using incarceration as the to-go punishment for severe crimes. Historically, U.S incarceration rates were average; however, this changed in the second half of the twentieth century when said rates increased exponentially (Zimring, 2010).  Between 1980 and 1999 alone, the U.S. had a 280% rise in the number of people incarcerated, a trend that has remained to-date (Austin et al., 2000). Perhaps the highlight of the high incarceration rates in the US is the fact that despite it being home to only one-twentieth of the world’s population, it houses one-fourth of the total inmate population of the world (Bibas, 2015). These rates are especially worrying as evidence shows that incarceration does not necessarily lead to the rehabilitation of convicts. This then becomes an unnecessary economic burden as running the prisons is incredibly costly especially with no fruits borne from the effort. While incarceration shelters the public from the offenders of society, particularly dangerous criminals, it is important to explore alternative ways of punishment to ease congestion in the prisons as well as avert the radicalization of petty offenders sentenced to said prisons.

The high rates of incarceration in the U.S. have a history stemming from policies with indeterminate sentencing paradigms. These policies afford judges the discretion in sentencing criminals with little regard to how it affects aspects associated with said sentences (Neal & Rick, 2013). Through this policy, judges can decide the offenders prison and how long their sentence will be. There was however, a public outcry over the paradigm, this led to changes in the intricacies of imprisonment as well as a change in how the sentences convicted criminals serve were to be determined (Neal & Rick, 2013).

Closely following the indeterminate paradigm was the “War on Drugs” policy that saw the light of day in the second half of the last century. Through this policy, law enforcement agencies and the criminal justice department began using harsher measures on drug offenders and drug-related crimes. The new policy was entirely political, emerging from the view among politicians that drug addicts and pushers were especially culpable for the increase in the rates of crime across the U.S , the implementation of these laws was more defined on inner-city neighborhoods with African Americans as the majority population. The political elite also held drugs responsible for urban infrastructure erosion and an increase in social and economic deterioration (Travis, Western, & Redburn, 2014).

The wake of the political “awakening” saw many criminals and offenders incarcerated, this wave also witnessed an increase in female incarceration due to association with offenders and convicts (Travis, Western, & Redburn, 2014).  This movement gave rise to the political elite campaigning on the platform of cracking down on crime, thereby introducing policies that lengthened sentences for criminals. Although the era of increased violent crimes, the 60s through the 80s is long past, many of the policies concerning incarceration from the times have not changed, this is another reason for the perpetuation of high rates of incarceration within the justice system.

The hard stance on incarceration and lengthened sentences are unfortunately, not beneficial to the nation in any way. According to Travis, Western, and Redburn (2014), the minimal impact of high incarceration rates and lengthy prison sentences does little to justify the perpetuation of such stringent policies. The incarceration policy, they argued has no economic or social benefit and in fact, only works to increase the economic burden of sustaining the high population within prisons while at the same time radicalizing both petty and hardcore criminals. Regarding the economic burdens of the high incarceration rates in the U.S., Kearney et al. (2014) stipulated that in 2010 alone, the nation spent $80 billion on corrections expenditures. The amount is spread across three levels of government,  federal, state and those at a local level.   Correctional expenditures have continued to grow over the past 20 years from about $17 billion in 1980 to $80 billion in 2010 (Kearney et al., 2014).

Increases in correctional expenditures have continued remaining commensurate with the increased incarceration rates. Kearney et al. (2014) posit that government expenditure on correctional expenses has continued to increase, with the number of inmates in correctional facilities growing at a rate higher than the populations birthrates. The increase has also meant a rise in per capita expenditure on the inmates, which has grown from $77 in 1980 to $260 in 2010 (Kearney et al., 2014). According to Travis, Western, and Redburn (2014) such crime-related expenditure is especially harmful to the taxpayer, as they put momentous strain on state and federal budgets. The indiscriminate incarceration and financial pressures lead to questions regarding whether the use of funds on such ventures is indeed prudent.

While it costs substantially more to run the correctional facilities, specifically meals and boarding for inmates, additional costs come with managing the health of the inmates. Additionally, overcrowding and the influx of inmates from different regions with diverse medical backgrounds are a recipe for an endemic. Travis, Western and Redburn (2014) aver that overcrowding in correctional facilities has direct related to incidences of the spread of infectious diseases in complex ways. Treatment of airborne infections such as TB and influenza are especially costly and have a debilitating effect on the health of the inmates.

The health of the inmates is threatened even more so by incidences of violence, torture and intimidation within the correctional facilities. The struggle for power within said facilities means that incidences of violent takeovers, coups and other such actions can markup cases of violence; a fact that puts the inmates at risk (Travis, Western, & Redburn, 2014). The forms of violence on the other hand surpass physical all the way to sexual violence, which puts the inmates at risk of contracting STIs such as HIV. There have been reported networks of STI and HIV transmissions that can be traced to incarceration. Concerns regarding incarceration include the fact that it removes young men and women from communities, this fundamentally disrupts stable relationships and the sex-ratio balance, increasing the risk factors for STI and HIV transmission among inmates (Travis, Western, & Redburn, 2014).

While the aforementioned are costs of high incarceration rates the government and the inmates must bear, effects of said rates are far reaching, from individual families to the community at large. Many children of incarcerated parents have grown and continue to grow without one of their parents and in extreme cases, when the second guardian has been implicated and detained; without any of their parents (Travis, Western, & Redburn, 2014). The high rates of incarceration tear apart the very fabric of society, which is family. Studies into the effect of incarceration have discovered that there is a link between weak family bonds and a child’s relatively poor well-being with incarceration rates. Aside from increasing the rates of divorce, incarceration sets a poor precedence with previously incarcerated men having a hard time establishing meaningful and stable families. Such is the case even for children with incarcerated guardians as they exhibit problems in childhood and their adolescence as a result of their parents having been detained (Travis, Western, & Redburn, 2014). Additionally, the risk of compromising the health of the community by releasing an offender is high, there are always cases where the offender despite being released has not reformed to fit with society.

Incarceration remains one of the primary methods of punishment for criminals. Studies into incarceration have discovered that for some convicts, incarceration may indeed work to rehabilitate the offender— molding them into a better person, fit to rejoin society. Indeed the purpose of incarceration is to rehabilitate the offender by teaching them life skills and if possible methods of trade and conduct formulated to make the offender self-sufficient. However, with the increased rate of incarceration, overcrowding has become the norm and as a result, incarceration is currently not performing its primary function of rehabilitation. Overcrowding, lack of funds and facilities as well as a lack of personnel have reduced incarceration to nothing more than punishment and confinement designed simply to keep harmful elements away from society the repercussions of the incarceration system losing sight of their objective is apparent . While some inmates leave prison as broken individuals with no hope for life, others leave radicalized and capable of causing even more harm to society by engaging in violent crimes. While it is a given that incarceration in most cases removes violent and dangerous elements from the streets, it is also true that the current rates are not beneficial to the nation or the community. Not only are they falling short in rehabilitating inmates for rejoining society, they are economically unfeasible. It is therefore of utmost importance to revise the policies on incarceration, particularly regarding petty offenders, by allowing them to serve less severe sentences outside prisons, they can be saved from the radicalization and danger of being in contact with the truly criminal, this also has the upside of decongesting prisons. By adhering to rather more modern guidelines, the correctional department can work to improve its system by getting down to the very essence of incarceration—rehabilitation.





Austin, J. et al. (2000). The Use of Incarceration in the United States. American Society of Criminology

Bibas, S. (2015). The Truth about Mass Incarceration. National Review.

Neal, D. & Rick, A. (2013). The Prison Boom & the Lack of Black Progress after Smith & Welch. The university of Chicago.

Kearney, M., S. et al. (2014). Ten Economic Facts about Crime and Incarceration in the United States. The Hamilton Project. Retrieved from

Travis, J., Western, B., & Redburn, S. (2014). The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press

Zimring, F. (2010). The Scale of Imprisonment in the United States: Twentieth Century Patterns and Twenty-First Century Prospects. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 100(3), 1225-1245