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How can the United States Lower Incarceration Rates?

Updated: Mar 31

Ondine Owens

The prison population has rapidly increased primarily due to the crime spike in the 1960s and 70s, influencing the U.S. government to put its foot down on crime. The government implemented harsher laws, including life sentences with no parole, mandatory drug sentences, and requiring a minimum of 25-year sentences for people convicted of a third assault. According to the World Prison Population List, the United States had the highest prison population rate globally, with 716 prisoners per 100,000 people. These numbers are shocking compared to the U.K. rate, which is below 150 prisoners per 100,000 people. Hilary Clinton reflected on these high incarceration rates in a speech on criminal justice at Columbia University, “It’s a stark fact that the United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, yet we have almost 25 percent of the world’s prison population.” 

The distinct differences in the incarceration rates of the American population and countries with similar judicial systems illustrate the needed reform. America’s overcrowded prisons are not due to high crime rates but because of harsh and excessive punishments placed on its non-violent offenders. 

Proof of America’s extreme punishments is evident when dealing with its war on drugs. This is very apparent in a report by a think tank in Washington D.C. known as Pew Research Center.

The report describes how federal drug imprisonment contributes to the overcrowding in American prisons. Congress, in hopes of lowering the rising drug rates, made drug offenders have longer sentences. The report states, “…between 1980 and 2015, the number of federal prisoners serving time for drug offenses soared from 5,000 to 92,000….” However, the threat of jail time for these offenders has not reflected a decrease in drug activity. 

A majority of these drug offenders are lower-level participants within these larger drug rings. Those caught by authorities are quickly replaced as powerful drug rings dispose of people left and right. It would seem that states with higher drug incarcerations would have lower drug rates within their communities; however, this is not the case. Pew Research Center compared drug imprisonment rate with drug problems in Tennessee and New Jersey, “New Jersey imprisoned drug offenders at a much lower rate than Tennessee, but the states’ drug use rates are roughly the same.” America continues this cycle of filling up its prisons with drug users, with no fallout in drug use. 

Solving overcrowding in American prisons is an issue that will need to be taken in a step-by-step manner. My proposal for approaching this issue is to release non-violent drug users, specifically for the possession of cannabis. 

Some men and women are serving life sentences for selling cannabis which is far too long for a non-violent crime. When corporations who legally distribute cannabis are making billions of dollars a year while these men and women sit in their jail cells, it is evident that there are flaws in the American judicial system. With cannabis dispensaries beginning to look like Apple stores, cannabis farms on the rise in California, and half of the states have decriminalized it, there is no justification for the imprisonment of these non-violent drug offenders. Legislators can potentially consider federally legalizing cannabis and free all prisoners convicted of using or selling marijuana to prevent drug sentences. According to Forbes, there are an “estimated 40,000 people incarcerated for marijuana offenses”. By decreasing the imprisonment population by 40,000, we would be taking a step in a positive direction. 

It can be argued that releasing these non-violent offenders would have little to no effect on the imprisonment rates. Many of these citizens will continue to utilize drugs, possibly more addictive than marijuana, return to their drug gangs, and end up back in prison. 

But, the problem is at the core. Overpopulation in prison is mainly due to the lack of support for those with criminal records or people right out of jail who have no idea how to integrate back into society. The government needs to start investing more money into education, support for underprivileged families, and promoting safe drug use. The tax revenue from the marijuana economy can go toward rehabilitation in the criminal justice system and crime prevention programs. The Blue Review found that “Colorado’s legal marijuana industry has brought in over one billion dollars in tax revenue to the state since it abandoned prohibition.”  Not only will legalizing marijuana reduce the prison populations, but it will also decrease violent crimes related to the cartels as they will no longer profit from selling cannabis. 

America’s criminal justice system needs reform, it will not be able to operate forever at its current population numbers.


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