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What Does Mass Incarceration Say About American Democracy?

By June 18, 2015April 14th, 2022No Comments

Published by — How we chose to build up the largest prison population in the world.


America’s torrid love affair with jails and prisons is hardly breaking news.  Since the late 1990s, academics called for the end of mass incarceration because their data revealed shameful racial disparities.  Fat lot of good it’s done.  Now we’re up to just under 2.4 million people behind bars, mostly men of color.  The U.S. has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prisoners.  The rate of incarceration is four times what it was four decades ago.

This phenomenon is both historically unprecedented and internationally unique.  Even the United Kingdom, with the next highest rate in the Western world, incarcerates only 148 per 100,000 people as compared with our 707 per 100,000.  The U.S. has more people behind bars than Russia or China.

America’s investment in punishment costs about $63 billion a year — $63,000,000,000.  And that’s not counting such social costs as ruined families, lost income, shame, and stigma.

How in God’s name did we get here?

Speaking recently, Jeremy Travis provided some answers to that question.  Working with the National Academies of Science, Travis is one of the three editors of The Growth of Incarceration in the U.S., which present the conclusions of a huge project that studied the issue.  Each chapter has 2-page summaries, and the whole book is downloadable.  Currently Travis serves as President of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in the New York City college system.  Previously he was the director of the National Institute of Justice and before that, the Urban League.

Referring to the events and racial tensions of Ferguson, Baltimore, New York and elsewhere, Travis says “The instinct of white people is to talk about the event.  Black people talk about history.  Now we all need to talk about history.”  The current that sparked these events is not recent, but generations old — what Travis calls “the failed promise of Emancipation.”

Let’s start with 1920, which is when incarceration data became reliable.  From then to 1972, we imprisoned roughly 100,000 to 110,000 people annually.  Humongous historical changes took place during that time, including the Great Depression and World War II.  Even Prohibition came and went without changing that number.

Then in the 1960s and 1970s came the social unsettling of America.  The Civil Rights movement exposed profound racial and social inequities.  We also had hippies, “free love” and the decline of traditional communities, as documented in Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone.  Crime levels rose.  The public felt unsafe.  So President Richard Nixon, among others, campaigned with slogans about being “tough on crime.”  Soon all politicians needed to be tougher than their opponents.  And tough meant punitive, retributive, primitive — an eye for an eye.

The bottom line, Travis says, is that, “We are here because we chose to be here.  Through our democratic process we elected these people — not that I voted for them — but we chose them.  Judges, prosecutors.  And they delivered on their promises by making more things criminal than before.  And by meting out longer sentences.”

The three drivers of mass incarceration:

1.  Legislators, and to some extent governors, got “zero-tolerance” laws passed, such as “three strikes and you’re out.”  “Out” means life without parole.  Lawmakers cared little about the specifics or degree of the offense, never mind the offender’s circumstances.  Just throw away the key.  By now we have what Travis calls “geriatric prisons.  Nursing homes behind bars.  What’s the possible safety benefit?  Zero or close to zero.”  (For the record, Europe rarely imposes life sentences, limiting even murder convictions to 10 years.  A mere decade in prison ruins an offender’s life, so “life” is just vindictive.)

2.  Again, it was elected officials who imposed mandatory minimal sentences, thereby removing judicial discretion.  With non-violent offenses, there’s no public safety benefit to sending a guy to prison when he can serve his sanctions in the community.  Let the judge decide if Johnny wouldn’t be better off living with his family, doing his restitution close to home.  Institutionalizing him in a horrible place won’t improve his behavior.  Indeed, all evidence points to the contrary.  Give discretion back to judges.

3.  By far the biggest driver was the War on Drugs. Drug convictions, which had been rare, grew nearly tenfold from 1980 to 2010.  Rather suddenly drugs became far more available.  Politicians took a zero-tolerance approach to addiction and self-medication, especially among the urban poor.

So people are eligible for prison for far more offenses; offenders serve more time, and they’re barred from humane judges’ wisdom, mercy or ability to consider circumstances.  We, the people, did this – mainly to young men of color.

Travis says, “I think mass incarceration is one of the most profound moral crises in America.  If this is the new normal, we have to be concerned about the value of our democracy and its impact on our communities.”

But now what?  How do we turn around the fearful, punitive, and oh, by the way, racist mentality that got us here?  More next week.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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