A Nation of Incarceration

An argumentative essay on the negative implications of mass incarceration in America.
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    A Nation of Incarceration AP Language & Composition Montgomery Blair High School Rachel Shereikis    Shereikis | 1 Every year, over 2.2 million Americans are locked away in local, state, and federal  prisons. Several of these people end up in jail for nonviolent offenses, and, for many, it’s not their first time being incarcerated. Prisons and jails have become overcrowded as a result of the sheer number of people being locked up, and the government has resorted to contracting private  prisons to accommodate the overflow. This phenomenon, called mass incarceration, has taken off in the past thirty years, stemming from the Reagan administration’s expansion of a “war on drugs” in the 1980s. Since then, as the number of imprisoned Americans has skyrocketed, the country has felt the ruinous effects of incarcerating such large numbers of people. Reform of the criminal justice system is much needed to combat these detrimental consequences. Ending mass incarceration would drastically curtail national spending, benefit people of color across the country, and restore the weight and meaning of the word “justice.” The United States didn’t always have a problem with mass incarceration. In fact, up until 1980, the US state and federal prison population remained below 300,000 (Bureau of Justice Statistics). With that in mind, how can one explain the nearly 400% increase in the number of state and federal prisoners over just thirty years? The recent spike in imprisonment is unrivaled in this country’s history, but the use of the prison system for oppressive purposes is not new to the United States. During the Reconstruction Era of the mid-to-late 1800s, incarceration was used to maintain racial oppression as a substitute for slavery. In 1982 President Ronald Reagan’s administration famously cracked down on the “War on Drugs” that President Nixon had declared in 1971 (“A Brief History of the Drug War”). The result was a surge of interest in crime and  punishment which was accompanied by the beginning of mass incarceration, and it was later admitted by Nixon aide John Ehrlichman that the sole purpose of the War on Drugs was to    Shereikis | 2 “heavily criminalize” Republican opposition: “the antiwar left and blacks” (“A Brief History of the Drug War”). During and after Reagan’s presidency, the United States saw an unprecedented increase in its prison population, and presently incarcerates more people than any other country in the world (Wagner and Rabuy). Almost forty years after Reagan’s era, America is forced to deal with the adverse effects of imprisoning colossal amounts of people. A large part of the conversation around mass incarceration involves the overwhelming cost of imprisoning millions of people. Annually, about 182 billion taxpayer dollars go toward America’s criminal justice system, encompassing expenses ranging from prosecution to healthcare for prisoners to telephone calls (Wagner and Rabuy). Within this staggering cost, there is evidence of serious disconnect between all levels of governmental criminal justice systems (Wagner and Rabuy). This leads to unnecessary expenses, like the $13.6 billion that “is spent detaining people who have not been convicted” in local jails (Wagner and Rabuy). This wasted money could be spent helping prisoners to recover from whatever crime they committed. Aid measures like this would help lower the rate of recidivism, which has been growing exponentially as more and more people are being incarcerated. A study done by the United States Sentencing Commission concluded that 76.6% of prisoners released from state prisons in 2005 “were arrested [again] within five years” (Hunt and Dumville). Ultimately, mass incarceration has unequivocally negative financial repercussions-- ones that fall on the shoulders of the government and on the people of America. As the number of inmates in America has surged, there has been a parallel yet entirely disproportionate increase in the number of racial minorities in prison. People of color, African Americans in particular, are immensely overrepresented in America’s criminal justice system. While African Americans “are 13 percent of the population,” as of 2011, “they made up 38    Shereikis | 3  percent of the population of state prisons” (Waldman). This misrepresentation in prison stems from a long history of racism and racial profiling in the United States. After slavery was abolished in 1865, white Americans found a new way to oppress people of color through the  prison system, and this trend has continued ever since, on a bigger scale than ever before. One in every three African American men can expect to be incarcerated at some point in their life, meaning they are locked away at five times the rate of whites (“Criminal Justice Facts”). Most of these men are being locked away for low-level, nonviolent offenses, especially drug related-crimes. However, this makes little sense, because while “African Americans represent 12% of monthly drug users,” they “comprise 32% of persons arrested for drug possession” (“Criminal Justice Fact Sheet”). This displays only a fraction of the evidence exposing the systematic racism running rampant in prisons. Reforming the criminal justice system and ending mass incarceration would have long-awaited positive implications for people of color who have  been imprisoned not because they are dangers to society, but because America is racist. The sheer number of flaws in America’s criminal justice system has made it the object of scrutiny by many, and, in a sense, has diminished the weight and meaning of the word “justice.” One very glaring example of this is the role that racial discrimination plays in courts, prisons, and arrests. Take Trayvon Martin. On February 26, 2012, the African American teenager was shot and killed walking home from a local convenience store simply because he looked suspicious to the officer on duty. He was 17 and unarmed. The officer, George Zimmerman, was tried in court for second-degree murder, yet acquitted of all charges. This is one of thousands, if not millions, of examples in which the criminal justice system has favored whites over blacks. Another paradoxical injustice in the criminal justice system is long sentences, thanks to mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Low-level, nonviolent offenders, specifically drug

Darkest hours

Dec 15, 2018
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