Prisonpolicy.org, Vera Institute, Pretrial Justice Institute, The Marshall Project and a host of other well-intentioned but disingenuous organizations want you to believe we have an incarceration problem in the United States. They will tell you the US houses about 2.2 million inmates1. Of the 2.2 million, 1.5 million are in prisons. Another 740,000 are in local jails. They will also tell you many of those in jails and prisons are poor people who have committed low-level, nonviolent, victimless offenses.
As I thought about the 2.2 million in jails and prisons, I wondered why judges would sentence so many low-level, nonviolent offenders to years in prison. Could it be judges are so uncaring, so thoughtless, so unjust, so biased against the poor? Is our justice system heartless?
I did not believe our judicial system or judges were so uncaring. I decided to dig into the numbers.
2.2 million incarcerated is certainly a high number. It would be wonderful if that number was much lower. However, once you look at the FBI crime statistics2, you begin to understand why there are so many incarcerated. You will then ask “Why are there so few?”
Over the past ten years there have been about 14 million reported violent crimes in the US. 14 million!! Those are just the violent crimes. There were another 86 million reported property crimes!! That’s 100,000,000 reported crimes over 10 years! One Hundred Million! In 2017, a murder occurred every 30 minutes. A rape every 4 minutes. An aggravated assault every 39 seconds. A property crime occurred every 4 seconds3. Every one of these crimes involves a victim. These are NOT victimless crimes.
Thankfully the incarcerated population has been steadily declining over the past 20 years, mostly due to a steadily declining crime and arrest rate. In fact, the incarceration rate is at its lowest level since 2004. While there are likely some who are incarcerated who can be safely released and who would not commit another offense, the recidivism rate remains extremely high at over 80% according the Bureau of Justice Statistics4.
So, the question is; does the United States have an incarceration problem? 14 million violent crimes over the past 10 years. 1.5 million in prison. The answer is clearly NO. The US has a crime epidemic, not an incarceration problem. Those well-intentioned groups state the US has the highest incarceration rate. True! It is what these disingenuous groups do not say that infuriates me. They do not tell you the United States has the highest crime rate in the world. 1.5 million in prison. 14 million violent crimes. Clearly, the incarceration rate is the result of terribly, violent crimes.
I recently heard a legislator state we need to separate those who we are afraid of from those who we are mad at meaning prison should house the truly dangerous, not the non-violent offenders. He is of the belief that we are keeping too many people in prison. In 2017, the US arrested about 500,000 violent offenders5. I believe these are ones he is afraid of. Considering arrests have been declining, it still equates to over 5 million violent offenders arrested over ten years. 1.5 million in prison. 5 million arrested. Frankly, it does not appear we have enough of those who we are afraid of in prison.
Hopefully, some of the reforms enacted, like the First Step Act, will curb recidivism. However, needed reforms must start long before a person can even attempt to commit a crime, be incarcerated or recidivate. Mayors and Governors need to honestly look at their crime policies rather than catering to a base of voters. California is starting to see the results of not taking crime seriously and passing terrible laws that promote lawlessness. Violent crime is up. Property crime is up when much of the country is done. The revolving door reforms California legislators passed are not for the better of victims or citizens.
The next time one of these disingenuous groups tells you the US has the highest incarceration, respond that it is because the US has the highest crime rate in the world.