*This post is part of our two-week symposium on racial inequalities in the criminal justice system.
For decades, America’s incarceration policies have been questioned both for their result of dwarfing every other nation on the planet in the number of people locked behind bars but also for their vast racial disparities.
Policies enacted during the height of the War on Drugs in the 1980s and 1990s expanded the use of incarceration as a response to rising crime and fear of crime. These include mandatory minimums, truth-in-sentencing laws, “three strikes you’re out” laws, federal funding targeted for building more prisons and other sentencing regimes that exponentially expanded America’s prison population.
The numbers are revealing. Since the 1970s, incarceration in the U.S. has increased steadily and dramatically. In fact, since 1990 the U.S. has added about 1.1 million additional people behind bars, almost doubling the nation’s incarcerated population. These prisoners are disproportionately people of color.
African-American males are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white males and 2.5 times more likely than Hispanic males. In 2013, almost 3 percent of black males were imprisoned compared to 0.5 percent of white males. America’s prisons and jails cost more than $80 billion annually – about equivalent to the budget of the federal Department of Education. This is the phenomenon of mass incarceration.
A recent report by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law provides additional empirical evidence for incarceration’s ineffectiveness at today’s unprecedented levels. Crime across the United States has steadily declined over the last two decades. Currently, the crime rate is about half of what it was at its height in 1991. Violent crime has fallen by 51 percent since 1991, and property crime by 43 percent.