Mass incarceration requires mass reform

The next president of the United States has a big job awaiting and hands full of issues needing leadership. Mass incarceration is one of those issues.

The crime rate in the United States is similar to that of other stable, developed countries, but incarceration rates are much higher, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a non-partisan advocacy group.

The United States holds 4 percent of the world’s overall population but 22 percent of the world’s incarcerated population, according to a March 11 Vox article citing figures obtained from the Bureau of Justice Statistics Prisoners Series. 

Since the declaration of a “War on Drugs” by President Richard Nixon in 1971, the incarcerated population increased rapidly until 2010, when the first drop in the incarcerated population in decades occurred, according to Bureau of Justice data. 

The causes of mass incarceration are numerous and run deep, both inside and beyond the prison system. Socioeconomic disadvantages limit access to education, mental health services and career opportunities and without those resources, people often turn to crime.

The privatization of prisons has also turned the prison system into an industry. For many communities, fighting mass incarceration means removing a source of income and employment. The industry of private prisons encourages mass incarceration—a related problem that must be addressed. 

When former prisoners re-enter society they are faced with a lack of resources and empathy.  The current prison system favors retribution over rehabilitation of offenders, and fails to invest in re-entry programs.

There is also significant evidence of racial profiling leading to incarceration. Minorities, particularly blacks and Latinos, are incarcerated at much higher rates than whites. Blacks are six times more likely to get arrested than whites and three times more likely to get arrested than Latinos, according to Bureau of Justice statistics. 

Officers, like Craig Matthews of the New York Police Department, have exposed the problem of arrest quotas in police departments, according to a December 2015 Huffington Post article. 

The job of police is not to arrest people, but to serve the community and enforce the law. Police should not have quotas, official or not, because failure to meet their quotas could pressure them to needlessly target innocent people. 

All of the current presidential candidates have positions on mass incarceration or have signaled where they stand previously.

Donald Trump has linked immigration and mass incarceration by claiming that immigrants increase crime and incarceration rates.

Ted Cruz advocated for sentencing flexibility in an essay he wrote as part of an April 27, 2015, collection of essays from New York University’s School of Law called “Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out On Criminal Justice.”

Bernie Sanders is advocating for plans that include investigating arrest quotas, investing in re-entry programs, eliminating minimum sentencing and investing in mental health services, according to his website.

Hillary Clinton is advocating similar solutions, according to her website.

However, she was confronted by a Black Lives Matter activist who demanded she apologize for her role in mass incarceration during her time as First Lady and for referring to children involved in drug or gang violence as “superpredators” in 1996, according to a Feb. 25 CNN article.

Clinton later said in a statement, “I shouldn’t have used those words, and I wouldn’t use them today.”

Clinton has accepted donations from private prisons in the past, according to an October 2015 article from The Huffington Post. A candidate’s past is not always indicative of what they would do now or in the future, but is still important to consider.

The mass incarceration problem is tied to some of the most serious social problems in the United States. How candidates deal with this issue will demonstrate whether or not they can overcome other concerns throughout their presidency.