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Is mass incarceration a myth?

OpinionIs mass incarceration a myth?

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Left-leaning think tanks never tire of talking about mass incarceration in the United States. It’s particularly bad in states like Texas, Florida and New York, for example – or so we’re told.

But, as a brand new paper clearly demonstrates, the mass incarceration narrative is based more on myth than actual facts.

As the paper, authored by two University of Pennsylvania law professors, notes, the prevailing belief is that the significant rise in America’s prison population since the 1960s can be attributed almost entirely to excessive and unjust punishment. However, as they show, this explanation fails to consider the various factors unrelated to sentencing that have contributed to the increase in incarceration. 

Prisoner behind the jail cell bars

The debate over incarceration practices requires nuance, the paper’s authors suggest. (iStock)

These factors include a nearly doubled U.S. population, higher crime rates, improved effectiveness of the justice system, the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, the introduction of new and stricter criminal laws, worsening criminal histories of offenders, and more.

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In short, it is evident that these non-sentencing factors can account for a majority of America’s heightened incarceration rates compared to the 1960s, contradicting the mass incarceration narrative pushed by left-leaning researchers and commentators. 

Furthermore, according to the professors, while certain punishments have indeed become more severe since the 1960s, most of these changes are likely viewed as aligning sentences more closely with what the community and many advocates for incarceration reform consider appropriate and just. This is particularly true in cases involving sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking, human trafficking, firearm offenses and child pornography.

Remember, it wasn’t until the late 1970s that Congress actually took legal steps to combat child pornography. Today, there are over 747,000 registered sex offenders in the United States. Rather alarmingly, 100,000 of them are noncompliant and cannot be located.

America’s prison population is often compared to that of foreign countries, but this comparison fails to consider the various non-sentencing factors at play. For instance, it wrongly assumes that a high per capita incarceration rate in America always indicates a problem with American practices, rather than those of foreign nations. 

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Mali and Congo have some of the lowest incarceration rates in the world. However, both countries are home to regular kidnappings and unimaginable levels of human trafficking. In Congo, currently in the midst of a serious humanitarian crisis, children are routinely abducted, sexually abused and killed. In short, a country with a low incarceration rate isn’t necessarily safe, secure or more stable.

Although the United States can undoubtedly gain insights from other nations, it is crucial to acknowledge that numerous foreign approaches to sentencing have resulted in significant discontent among citizens. In India, for example, people regularly take to the streets to protest against ridiculously lenient sentences for gang rapists (every 18 minutes, somewhere in India, a woman is raped). 

The debate over incarceration practices requires nuance, the paper’s authors suggest.  

Concerningly, the legal experts believe that many myths surrounding mass incarceration have been intentionally created by those who oppose not only incarceration, but punishment in general. This is a very fair point. After all, in recent years, it has become fashionable to ask if prisons should be abolished entirely?

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They shouldn’t.

For these “activists,” the mass incarceration narrative serves as a tool to eliminate punishment, a goal that goes against the beliefs of the general population. A recent Gallup report shows that more than 30% of Americans express concern about becoming a victim of robbery, while 32% worry about being attacked while driving. 

A slightly lower percentage of people, around 30%, have apprehensions about experiencing a hate crime, being murdered or being sexually assaulted. More than 4 in 10 Americans regularly worry about their homes being broken into.

Such concerns are warranted. Fear of crime is a significant factor that limits everyday Americans’ movement. 

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According to the Gallup report, 34% of individuals admit to avoiding driving into certain areas of their town or city due to this fear. Similarly, 31% of respondents avoid visiting central areas of nearby cities. 

This fear of crime not only hampers economic activity but also discourages many from going to their local shopping malls. Moreover, the fear of crime has negative implications for Americans’ physical well-being. About 31% of individuals state that this fear has prevented them from taking walks, jogging or running alone in their area. Additionally, 17% of Americans claim that it deters them from visiting local parks. 

Furthermore, a significant portion of the population – 28%, to be exact — avoids attending concerts and other crowded events due to this fear. Similarly, 28% of individuals refrain from talking to strangers due to concerns about crime. 

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Today, as another recent Gallup report demonstrates, 58% of Americans think the justice system needs to be tougher on crime, not more lenient. In fact, only 14% believe that the U.S. criminal justice system is too tough.

When discussing crime in America, we must assess the facts and not fall victim to narratives that appeal to emotion rather than objective thinking.

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