3d interior jail and iron bars

2.4 million.

That is the number of Americans currently in prison. America’s total population is 318.9 million people. If that seems like a startling ratio to you, it is for good reason. America’s prison overpopulation is a real and recognizable problem. And while it is America’s problem, on the whole, it is the constituent states that are really to blame. The majority of prisoners in the U.S.A. are in state jails, or have been imprisoned for breaking laws at the local level. More specifically, it is drug reform laws that are the most directly contributory to the downright glut of prisoners in our country. In New York State, for example, the Rockefeller Laws can be seen as the reason why so many of our citizens find themselves behind bars.

Rockefeller Laws in New York State

Nelson Rockefeller was a no-nonsense conservative politician, who was governor of New York from 1959-1973. He is credited with enacting some of the toughest drug laws the nation has ever seen. However, time has been unkind in its estimation of the efficacy of his drug laws. Whereas Rockefeller thought he’d scare off potential drug criminals with dramatically longer sentences, modernity has proven that what has instead occurred is a flooding of the prison system with otherwise non-violent first time offenders. Many of whom were unaware of the Draconian penalties their drug-using actions might incur. The Rockefeller Laws drew widespread criticism; detractors from both the political left and right found it hard to reconcile punishing small-quantity drug offenders on par with murderers and other violent offenders. The opposition preached the superiority of rehabilitation programs and community service sentences as a better means to counteract drug crimes and drug culture.

In 2009, newly appointed New York State governor David Patterson made one of his first priorities revising the Rockefeller Laws. He called them obviously unsuccessful, and began repealing the mandatory minimum sentences.

Three-Strike Laws

New York isn’t the only state with controversial jailing methods. “Habitual offender laws,” which are commonly referred to as “three-strike laws,” have been employed in many states. These laws are meant to enact harsher penalties on repeat offenders. Those found guilty of committing a third crime, after two previous serious crime convictions, will be awarded more severe prison sentences. Normally, this means life in prison. Of course, most edicts that are put concretely in place without any provisions for judgment calls or subjectivity run the risk of ensnaring undeserving candidates. As such, there are extreme cases of criminals who, while meeting the criteria of the laws, don’t seem to warrant the life sentences that come as a result. In California, a man who had been arrested for robbery and attempted robbery was charged with violent assault while attempting to steal a slice of pizza. That final crime, the pizza slice heist, landed him a life behind bars.

Prison Over-Population Statistics

  • America has the largest prison population in the world but, interestingly, the second largest per capita incarceration rate. It is second only to the archipelagic African country of Seychelles, which, as Africa’s least populated country, may be the victim of sampling bias.
  • 65 million Americans currently have a criminal record.
  • There are 4,575 prisons in the U.S.A. To put this stat more dishearteningly: America has more prisons than colleges.
  • Louisiana is the state with the highest incarceration rate.
  • In 2010, the American government spent $80 billion on the prison system.
  • 1 in every 31 Americans is either in prison, in jail, on probation, or on parole.
  • Despite comprising a mere 5% of the world’s population, America houses 25% of the world’s prisoners.
  • The U.S.A. has a 3.5x higher incarceration rate than Mexico, its neighbor to the south.
  • New York City is the cannabis-arrest capital of the world.

The Results

Because jails provide food, shelter, healthcare and other social programming for their inmates, the economic cost of so many jails, and so many jailed within, is enormously high. And while the financial strain can be quantified absolutely, estimating the cultural impact is a far more nebulous affair. Imprisonment is biased disproportionately towards minorities, the poor, and the mentally handicapped. High incarceration rates can fracture communities and disenfranchise neighborhoods on a microcosmic level.

Most pro-incarceration politicians believed that longer and more stringent jail terms would lead to a dramatic decrease in the crime rate. However, correlation between ascending prison populations and national crime rates is hard to definitively prove, and the correspondence in rates is actually almost negligibly small.