What are the drivers of mass incarceration? It’s a complicated question, with racism and classism central to the answers. The drug war is an important factor, but plays a smaller overall role than many realize, so ending mass incarceration will require addressing a wider spread of injustices.
Activists debated this during the Students for Sensible Drug Policy virtual conference, which took place on the first weekend of May and was moderated by psychedelic advocate Oriana Mayorga. “The US sentences people to prison for longer times than anywhere else in the world,” said Janos Marton. Marton worked on New York’s #CloseRikers campaign and is now a candidate for Manhattan district attorney, as Filter has reported. “We have people serving 10, 20, 30 years or life … Many countries globally don’t even have life sentences for the most serious crimes.”
Panelists discussed policies that would reduce the incarcerated population. “We would have to decarcerate large portions of the US at once,” said James Gould, director of Repair Now. “The end goal should be to move beyond jails and prisons with policies like drug decriminalization, bail reform, and abolishing life sentences. We also need to add social services like healthcare.”
Beyond ending mass incarceration, activists explained, lies another huge task—creating a healthier and safer society. Joana Canêdo of drug policy group Youth RISE explained the Portuguese model of drug decriminalization, implemented in 2001. In this system, people apprehended for drug-law violations are sent not to jail but to a substance use commission, where a psychologist and social workers assess whether they may need help.
“They may be paired with addiction treatment or housing services, or simply sent home,” Canêdo said. “We can point to many failures with our system, but we do not have the problem of mass incarceration in other countries. We have stabilized problematic drug use over 20 years and removed much stigma. We are focused on the people and not the drugs or the behavior.”
Drug charges have varying impacts on different areas of the US criminal justice system. Drug offenders make up about 44 percent of the federal prison population, but federal prisons hold less than 10 percent of the total incarcerated population of 2.3 million. The other 90 percent of incarcerated people are held in state prisons, local jails and other facilities.
When it comes to the state prison population of 1,291,000, people on drug charges make up less than 15 percent of the total. The largest categories of offenses in state prisons are violence (55 percent), followed by property crimes (17 percent).
Local jails hold over 27 percent of the incarcerated population. Within this category, about 470,000 people, or three in four, are held in pre-trial detention, without having been convicted of a crime. People held on drug charges make up roughly a quarter of those in local jails.
Local cash bail policies greatly contribute to the jails total. The median bail amount in jails is $10,000. For many people, that’s an impossible sum. The fluidity of jail populations also complicates the picture; many more people are admitted to jail each year than are held in them at any given moment. Each year, people are sent to jail 10.6 million times, often just for hours or days.
To put it all together, people on drug charges represent about one in five of all people incarcerated in the US. But the vagueness of offense categorization complicates these data. Someone convicted of a “violent” offense may also have committed a drug or other offense, but only the most serious offense is reported. And convictions are often the result of plea bargains, where people will plead guilty to a lesser offense, or to an offense they didn’t even commit.
Astoundingly, the 2.3 million people behind bars in the US are only a fraction of the total population under some form of “correctional control.” Including people on probation and on parole, the criminal justice system controls nearly 7 million people. Probation alone includes 3.6 million people.
“We set people up to fail when they get out of the prison system,” said Marton at the conference. “We have an extremely onerous parole system that makes people jump through incredible hoops even though they don’t have access to housing or jobs. Many people end up cycling in and out of the jail system” on so-called “technical violations.”
Filter has reported on the injustices facing people when they get out of jail or prison. Having a criminal record allows for employers, banks, schools and governments to legally discriminate against you and deny you basic services and rights. People with criminal records may lose the right to vote, get a loan to buy a house or hold certain jobs.
“When someone is arrested for a drug offense as an undocumented immigrant, they can be deported,” added Reid Murdoch, an attorney for the Neighborhood Defender Service in New York. “When someone in public housing is arrested for a drug offense, then can lose their home. Or parents could lose their children to the child welfare state. We have to think of these other means governments use to restrict people’s liberty.”
For people who want to do the hard work of ending mass incarceration, Marton urged them to get involved in grassroots activism to put pressure on governments and institutions through whatever tactics are available—lawsuits, voting, lobbying and more. Or, run for office.
“Choosing to lock people up instead of helping them is a political decision,” he said. “We need to make sure that people in positions of power and who make decisions about who goes to jail or gets help, will actually choose to invest in people.”
True decarceration extends to people who have done things that we might find reprehensible, and Marton ended by posing a difficult question to conference attendees. “Test yourself—how can you free yourself of the desire for vengeance and incarceration for people you don’t like or who do things you find abhorrent?” he said. “It’s easy to say ‘end mass incarceration’ until we’re angry. The next time you see a headline or a Twitter feed about that person being punished, think to yourself about what would be real accountability that wouldn’t result in prison.”