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How easy is it to understand mass incarceration?

The details of mass incarceration is complicated, but the Prison Policy Initiative report Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2019 by Wendy Sawyer and Peter Wagner (3/19/19) provides an extensive look at the data. The report has over 20 graphs and links to data. A few excerpts:

The American criminal justice system holds almost 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 109 federal prisons, 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,163 local jails, and 80 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S. territories.

Every year, over 600,000 people enter prison gates, but people go to jail 10.6 million times each year. Jail churn is particularly high because most people in jails have not been convicted.

People in prison and jail are disproportionately poor compared to the overall U.S. population. The criminal justice system punishes poverty, beginning with the high price of money bail: The median felony bail bond amount ($10,000) is the equivalent of 8 months’ income for the typical detained defendant. As a result, people with low incomes are more likely to face the harms of pretrial detention. Poverty is not only a predictor of incarceration; it is also frequently the outcome, as a criminal record and time spent in prison destroys wealth, creates debt, and decimates job opportunities.

It’s no surprise that people of color — who face much greater rates of poverty — are dramatically over represented in the nation’s prisons and jails. These racial disparities are particularly stark for Black Americans, who make up 40% of the incarcerated population despite representing only 13% of U.S residents. The same is true for women, whose incarceration rates have for decades risen faster than men’s, and who are often behind bars because of financial obstacles such as an inability to pay bail.

Read the whole report for considerably more information and data.

About Thomas J. Pfaff

Thomas J. Pfaff is a Professor of Mathematics at Ithaca College. He created this website because he believes that sustainability, ranging from climate change to social justice, should be included in all courses whenever possible.

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