Mass Incarceration in the United States

This semester’s last installment of Pizza & Politics was a discussion on mass incarceration in the United States.

Prior to the 1970’s the United States incarceration rate held steady at about 100 inmates per 100,000 citizens. In 2008, there were 754 inmates per 100,000 citizens. The US has the highest inmate population of any country in the world with roughly 2.2 million.

The discussion began with students sharing whether or not they believed the increased numbers were because of increased crime or because of policy change in the last 30-40 years. Many students felt that policy change was largely responsible for the rise in numbers. Many felt that policies had unfairly targeted marginalized/minority communities and populations and felt that also aided in the increase.

Others felt that crime was responsible for a fair share because technology has created new types and categories of crimes that didn’t exist previously. One student suggested that the increased numbers could be due to the fact that the justice system is more effective at catching criminals than ever before.

Students were then asked if they thought the racial disparity in incarceration rates were situational or systematic. Many students felt that the disparities stemmed from a systematic problem. Many cited past instances where minority populations were unfairly treated within the justice system, i.e racial profiling, etc. and other governmental entities such as fair and affordable housing.

Others believed that poor economic situations had a bigger impact on incarceration rates. They acknowledged that often times those in low-income families/neighborhoods are often times minority populations but that poverty or lack of education was the cause of the overrepresentation of minority populations in incarceration.

The discussion then shifted to incarceration vs. rehabilitation. Many students felt that rehabilitation was a better choice for those in the prison system.

They felt that decriminalizing non-violence drug charges was the best way to clear up overcrowding and rehabilitation would help lessen the number of repeat offenders.

Others felt that the question of incarceration and rehabilitation should be decided on a case by case basis. They felt that violent offenders who had very long or life sentences that were unlikely to reenter society should not be allowed rehabilitation.

Many students agreed however that the cost of rehabilitation was more manageable that incarceration rates but were unclear on how effective rehabilitation would be concerning much of the prison population.

Pizza & Politics will resume January 17th. Be sure to stop by the Michael O. Leavitt Center for Politics and Public Service located in the Sharwan Smith Student Center for more information on P&P and how you can get involved.

Story by
Lily Shurtleff for SUU News