THE REAL REASON AMERICA IS THE PRISON CAPITAL OF THE WORLD
his may be an uncomfortable read for some, but let us have a conversation about the real culprit behind mass incarceration in America. It is not, as popularly believed to be, the result of the federal government’s war on drugs. Rather, America has become the prison capital of the world because of lengthy prison sentences imposed on violent offenders. And if the goal is to decrease incarceration, then a tough conversation needs to be had about how long violent offenders are held behind bars.
Understandably, the thought of releasing nonviolent, low-level drug offenders is an easier pill to swallow by the masses than the thought of releasing violent offenders. Hence prison reforms from the federal, state and local levels have focused almost exclusively on the “ideal candidates”—low-level drug and property offenders.
And although these efforts cannot go unappreciated, it leaves out a vast majority of the prison population. And if true reform in the criminal justice system is to be achieved, violent offenders cannot be ignored in these efforts. I will introduce you to data from the U.S. Department of Justice to illustrate this point, but before I do, I will like to shed light on often overlooked facts about violent offenders.
Studies shows that people convicted of violent offenses are less likely to be repeat offenders than their counterparts; drug and property offenders. Meaning, a person convicted of a violent offense who spends 20 years in prison is less likely to re-offend and end up back in the system than the person who spends two years in prison for drug-related charges. This is because, as research shows, people tend to age out of crime. So while the propensity to commit a violent offense may peak in the late teens, the desire to so dwindles down with age.
And if you are still offended by the thought of shortening the prison sentence for a violent offender, understand that about 90-95% of all criminal cases are settled by plea deals. A person who pleads guilty to a low-level drug or property offense is likely a violent offender who pled guilty to a lesser included charge to save the state the cost of a trial. So while people may sleep better at night thinking the current prison reform efforts are targeted at only the nonviolent offenders, in actuality they may inadvertently aid in the release, or shortened sentence for the type of violent offenders, likely to re-offend.
It is a popularly held belief that the federal government’s war on drugs during the 1970s and the ’80s is the cause of mass incarceration in America. However, the numbers do not back up this particular assertion.
And here is why:
Per the most recent data, only 12% of all prisoners are held by the federal government. The remaining 88% percent are held by state prisons. Of the 12% held by the federal government, 46% are held for drug-related offenses. On the other hand, of the 88% held by state prisons, 56% are held for violent offenses, and only 14% are held for drug-related offenses. Besides funding efforts, the federal government has no say in how states police themselves. So any efforts by the federal government to wage war on drug offenders as a means of perpetuating mass incarceration only affect 46% of the 12% of prisoners held by the federal government. Which is the larger picture, amounts to only 5-6% of the total prison population. See The Tables Below:
Prisoners held by state by offense type:
Prisoners held by federal government by offense type:
Even in the unlikely scenario where all the prisoners held by the federal government on drug-related charges are freed, only 5-6% of the prison population will be affected.
Fifty-six percent of all prisoners held by state prisons are held for violent offenses. And this is not because people commit more violent offenses each year. In fact, the reverse is true. More people are admitted to prison each year for drug, property, or other nonviolent offenses than violent offenses. The reason the number of violent prisoners is high is because such inmates tend to serve a substantially higher prison term than their counterparts. You could infer from this findings that the prison system consists of a continued recycle of drugs, property, and other nonviolent offenders. See the stock vs flow chart below by Bookings.
Prison reform efforts from the last decade have helped decrease the number of incarcerated people in America. Since 2009, the imprisonment rate for US residence has dropped by 17%. However, this drop largely impacts nonviolent offenders. And this could be because prison reform during this period has mostly focused on this class of offenders. For example, from the most recent data, the percentage change in a release from 2018 to 2019 was 7.4% for the federal government, while the change was -1.8% for the state. See The Table Below:
This means that the federal government released more people in 2019 than it did in 2018. But the state released fewer people in 2019 than it did in 2018.
The simple explanation for this trend is that the vast majority of prisoners held by the federal government are nonviolent offenders. Only 7% of such prisoners are violent offenders. But this is not the case for a prisoner held by the state. Therefore if prison reform efforts (whether from the federal or state level) disproportional targets nonviolent offenders, then it will make sense that the federal government will release more prisoners than the state does.
However, as John Pfaff, the author of Locked In The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform warns, unless attention is paid to the real cause of mass incarceration—violent offenders, the decrease in a prison population that has been achieved in the past decade will not continue, at least not at the rate it has been in the last decade.
Some people are labeled violent offenders in title only. An example of such a persons is Rebecca Forward, whose story I introduced you to earlier. Rebecca pled guilty to first-degree murder in 2002. But Rebecca neither intended to nor actually killed anyone.
She was charged under a theory of law known as the felony-murder rule. She was tricked into a robbery by her boyfriend. In fact, she was not aware that the robbery was happening when it was actually happening. Her boyfriend brought a friend along for the robbery who ended up killing the victim. Because prosecutors wrongfully found that Rebecca played a role in the robbery, the crimes of her boyfriend, and his accomplice was imputed onto her. So although Rebecca is not actually a violent person, she is classified in the group of violent offenders. There are other nonviolent persons like Rebecca who were prosecuted for violent offenses under other forms of legal theories like the accomplice liability theory.
The vast majority of people support criminal justice reform. And the efforts to reform the justice system has come a long way since 2009. However, to ensure a continued decline in the number of people who are incarcerated, the real root of the problem of mass incarceration should not be ignored. And the cause of this problem is lengthy prison sentences for violent offenders.
 Here are the numbers from previous years:
2018 : Federal 12%: Drug 47.1% Violent 7.8%
State 88%: Drug 14.4%. Violent 55.7%
2017 : Federal 12% : Drug 47.3% Violent 7.9%
State 88% : Drug 14.8% Violent 55.2%
2016 : Federal 13% : Drug 47.5% Violent 7.7%
State 87% : Drug 15.2% Violent 54.5%
2015 : Federal 13%: Drug 49.5% Violent 7.4%
State 87%: Drug 15.7% Violent 52.9%
 This is the most recent data available