Nearly 1 of every 100 adults in the United States is in prison or jail, a rate that is 5-to-10 times higher than rates in other democracies. Further, nearly 1 in 32 adults is under some form of correctional supervision. Of those incarcerated, more than half is Black or Hispanic. As stated in a 2014 National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report, "the best single proximate explanation of the rise in incarceration is not rising crime rates, but the policy choices made by legislators to greatly increase the use of imprisonment as a response to crime." Punitive policies resulted from a desire to reduce the crime rate, but research suggests that the incremental deterrent effect of harsh policies, such as increases in lengthy prison sentences, is modest at best.
Mass incarceration is profoundly harmful not only for prisoners, but also for children, families, and communities, which experience long-term disadvantages. More than half (54%) of inmates are parents with minor children. As sentencing laws have become more severe, greater proportions of children (especially children of color) are separated from their parents, and for longer periods. According to a report by Child Trends, 1 in 14 children has experienced parental incarceration. When incarceration disrupts nurturing relationships, innocent children are punished.Communities with high levels of incarceration lose human capital as individuals are displaced, families torn apart, and institutions weakened. Research has shown that neighborhoods may experience changes in parenting patterns, employment opportunities, and community norms, all of which can increase poverty and restrict opportunities for self-efficacy. These social justice issues are largely ignored in public policy debates regarding criminal justice reform.
The problems caused by mass incarceration are not limited to the time an individual spends in prison or jail. Returning prisoners encounter multiple barriers to reintegration: many have weak ties to the job market, their families, and their communities, as a result of longer sentences. Prisoners with children who were placed in foster care for 15 months in a 22-month period risk losing parental rights, especially if they are unable to communicate with caseworkers and with their children (see the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997), and judges are unable to help preserve family relationships.
Many former prisoners struggle with substance abuse or mental health problems; however, treatment is scarce in correctional facilities, and coordinated services after release are even less common and often have significant waitlists. Coupled with a lack of social networks in the labor force, these circumstances make it extremely difficult to secure basic necessities of life, including a job, housing, and transportation, which are critical for meeting the conditions of parole.
High concentrations of residents leaving for prison and returning from prison and growing numbers of residents with limited employment prospects can cripple local communities. Local self-governance may be replaced by increased policing that alienates neighbors. These consequences disproportionately affect minority neighborhoods, and they reduce the capacities of all residents to be productive and help one another. When ex-offenders cannot find jobs and social support, they may return to criminal activity.
Our Work on Mass Incarceration
In 2015, the Global Alliance formed a Task Force aimed at addressing the challenges related to mass incarceration. In particular, the task force is working on a white paper that will provide policy and practice recommendations related to the reentry of former prisoners into communities.
Position Statement on Shackling
All youth, regardless of their alleged offense, are shackled in proceedings in hundreds of juvenile courts across the country. Shackling can even occur in status offense cases in which a young person is brought to the court for non-criminal behavior (e.g., truancy). Children find themselves in handcuffs, leg irons, and belly chains as a routine, unquestioned practice. The Global Alliance is a strong supporter of best practices in juvenile justice. For these reasons, we believe that the shackling of juveniles in courtroom settings should be limited to the rarest of situations. Shackling should never be automatic or the presumptive practice of a juvenile court. In our position statement on shackling reform, we encourage an interdisciplinary dialogue among mental health professionals, child advocates, service providers, researchers, policymakers, and other stakeholders to develop and promote a more humane approach to addressing the needs of children and families involved in the juvenile justice system.
Our Spotlight features research in AJO on incarceration.
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What can you do?
- Learn more about mass incarceration
- Support organizations that address reentry of former prisoners into communities
- Advocate for criminal justice reform