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The Social Cost of High Prison Rates

Prison Bars
Prison Bars
Photo by Johannes Simon/Getty Images

A report published by The Hamilton Project, affiliated with the Brookings Institution indicates that crime rates have dropped 45 percent in the past fifteen years, since 1990. However, even though the crime rate has been reduced the number of incarcerations for crimes committed has jumped 222 percent in the time frame between 1980 and 2012.

The report also indicates that an African-American high school dropout is 70% more likely to become imprisoned by his mid-30’s when compared to his white counterpart who is imprisoned at about a 15% level. The United States is also higher than peer countries like the European Union, Japan, Israel, and Mexico. Six times more people are imprisoned than these other comparable countries.

Police Presence

The fault of the social disparity in the levels of African-American citizens being incarcerated has been placed on the heads of police departments. Officers over-police poor and minority areas of cities which means more criminals from these demographics are being caught and incarcerated under the sometimes unfair minimum sentencing laws.

Economic Disparity

American society has caste systems like India, although they are not spiritual, they are societal. A person who has a lot of money, or at least falls in the middle-income level is less likely to stay in jail for as long as a poor person because they have the assets to get released on bail before they are prosecuted. Poor citizens do not have the benefit of bail so they are more likely to sit in a jail cell awaiting trial. This rift in society based upon economics is putting a great strain on the prison systems across the country.

Lack of Opportunity

The systems in the United States are prejudice in favor of those who have money. This disparity can be resolved by a re-adjustment of the mandatory minimum sentencing, and by integrating rehabilitation and skills training for those who have been incarcerated. Recidivism rates would likely reduce if those incarcerated had skills they can use once they are released back into society.


It is apparent that the incarceration system in the United States needs improvement. It is touted as the greatest judicial system in the world, but there is only punishment, no solutions. The judiciary, the police, and the prisons all should be more aware of the problems they are creating and work to improve the outcomes of those who have found themselves on the “wrong” side of the law.

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