Overincarceration & Criminalization: Full Overview

Over the past 45 years, states have responded to public safety concerns by dramatically expanding incarceration and correctional budgets, while divesting from education, mental health care, and drug treatment. The prison population has grown by 500 percent since 1980, and two-thirds of this population struggles with mental health and drug abuse. Though they are not equipped for it, jails and prisons have become our country’s largest mental health and drug treatment providers.

Politicians have created a one-size-fits-all approach to criminal justice by ignoring effective alternatives to incarceration and passing mandatory sentencing laws. These laws strip judges of their power to consider the unique circumstances of each case, lumping together those who have committed serious crimes with low-risk individuals who need mental health and addiction treatment. As a result, though the US justice system was created to force accountability and rehabilitation on a small population of high-risk offenders, it is currently clogged with low-risk individuals, costing taxpayers over $250 billion every year.7 Like a one-speed bicycle that cannot adapt to different terrain, the justice system is stuck in “prison gear.”

Nowhere is the problem with our one-size-fits-all approach more acute than in addressing drug use problems in minority communities. Though African-Americans and Latinos have similar rates of drug use compared to white people, they are arrested and incarcerated at significantly higher rates for nonviolent drug possession and other low-level crimes.

A justice system stuck in “prison gear” actually makes our communities less safe. It fails to address underlying causes of much low-level crime: addiction, poverty, and untreated mental health problems. Imprisoning low-risk individuals exposes them to violence and trauma in jail—exacerbating their mental health and substance abuse issues. It severs their healthy ties to family and community and pushes them to join gangs and criminal networks. It also destabilizes their families; the 11 million children who have had a parent behind bars are themselves more likely to use drugs, suffer trauma, and commit crimes. And saddling more people with a criminal record increases recidivism by blocking legal employment, housing, and education—the essential ingredients for building stable, responsible lives.

The incarceration of low-risk individuals also undermines public safety because it diverts resources from dealing with those who commit serious, violent crimes. It prevents law enforcement from focusing its resources on preventing, investigating, and prosecuting serious crime. It prevents prisons from offering rehabilitation to help offenders become the people we want them to be upon release, a dangerous failure since almost everyone in prison is eventually released.4