Why are So Many Americans Incarcerated? A History of U.S. Prisons & Criminal Justice

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“There’s this expression that you have ‘paid your debt to society’ or you ‘served your time,’ but in reality, in the U.S., that debt is never paid because that record is always there. It’s always there for employers for potential landlords, and no matter what you do, no matter all the great things you do, it’s always going to pop up.”
Marc Howard, PhD, Professor of Government and Law, Founding Director of the Prisons and Justice Initiative at Georgetown University

While the U.S. has only 5 percent of the world’s population, it accounts for nearly a quarter of its prisoners. There are nearly 2.3 million people in our nation’s prisons and jails. With 655 inmates for every 100,000 people, the U.S. is by far the leader in incarceration among Western countries.

After President Nixon declared the War on Drugs in the 1980s, the number of people incarcerated for drug offenses in the U.S. shot from roughly 50,000 in 1980 to 452,964 in 2017. Today, there are more people imprisoned for drug-related offenses in the U.S. than the number of people who were behind bars for any crime in 1980.

The justification of our high incarceration rate is based on the idea that taking criminals off the streets reduces crime rates. And while it’s certainly true that some level of incarceration has a positive impact on reducing crime, research shows that there is a diminishing return, meaning that each additional prisoner yields less in terms of crime reduction.

For instance, the growth of incarceration in the 1990s and 2000s didn’t lead to any observable decrease in violent crimes. This makes sense because a larger proportion of convicts during this period were non-violent offenders. Some experts suggest that this could, ironically, generate crime in the long-term because placing low-level offenders into prison systems could harden them into career criminals instead of rehabilitating them.

This begs the question, why are we incarcerating so many people? We talked to Dr. Marc Howard, one of the country’s leading voices and advocates for criminal justice and prison reform, to find out.

Meet the Expert: Marc Howard, PhD, Professor of Law and Government

Cassandra L. Reyes

Dr. Marc Howard is a professor of government and law and the founding director of the Prisons and Justice Initiative at Georgetown University. He received his BA in ethics, politics, and economics from Yale University, his MA and PhD in political science from the University of California, Berkeley, and his JD from Georgetown University.

After becoming a professor, Dr. Howard began visiting a childhood friend, Marty Tankleff, who was wrongfully convicted of killing his mother and attempting to kill his father, resulting in a sentence of 50 years to life in prison. These visits ended up changing the course of Dr. Howard’s life, as he dedicated himself to helping overturn Tankleff’s wrongful conviction, including going to law school to help his friend. Eventually, Tankleff was exonerated, which Dr. Howard describes as one of the best moments of his life.

Dr. Howard is also the founder and president of the Frederick Douglass Project for Justice, which aims to create a multi-state prison visitation program that enables people to visit local correctional facilities and engage in face-to-face conversations with the incarcerated, with the ultimate goal of driving meaningful personal and systemic change.

Why Are So Many Americans incarcerated?

Dr. Howard addresses this question in his book, Unusually Cruel: Prisons, Punishment, and the Real American Exceptionalism. He breaks down the answer into four main factors.



We are all aware that a disproportionate number of Black Americans are incarcerated in the U.S., but do you know to what degree? While one in 17 white men in the U.S. will be imprisoned in their lifetime, one in three Black men will spend time behind bars.

A major driving force behind this vast disparity is racial profiling by police. Black individuals are far more likely than whites to be pulled over by the police while driving. They also are more likely to be detained, handcuffed, and searched. So it’s no surprise that studies show that Black people are arrested at a rate five times higher than white people.

Once they are arrested, Black men are also more likely to be convicted, and once convicted, they are more likely to face stiff sentences than their white counterparts.

“The race issue has to do with the evolution from slavery to convict leasing to Jim Crow laws and then ultimately mass incarceration,” Dr. Howard said. (“Convict leasing” refers to the post-Civil War system in which southern states leased prisoners to private railways, mines, and large plantations.)

“There have been long-standing attempts to keep African Americans down and subjugated in American history. Mass incarceration is the latest form of that.”

There is some good news, though. Between 2000 to 2016, the ratio of Black offenders “under the supervision of criminal justice (in prison, in jail, on probation or on parole)” to white offenders shrank from 8.3-to-1 to 5.1-to-1, according to a study by the Council on Criminal Justice.

There is no one cause behind this improvement, and even experts can only speculate about why. It could be partly due to the fact that the war on drugs has shifted its focus from crack and marijuana to meth and opioids.

Regardless, the ratio is still nowhere near parity, but a marginal improvement. There is still a lot of work to do in the effort to dismantle systemic racism within our justice system.



Dr. Howard also highlights Christianity’s influence on our criminal justice system. In the U.S., areas with higher rates of incarceration overlap with places characterized by homogenous Christianity.

Research suggests that the type of religion that is most prevalent in an area impacts sentencing decisions. For example, one study found that judges in Georgia affiliated with conservative Protestant denominations were less likely to grant probation.

“[The element of] religion started in the 1970s when the evangelical movement became very politicized. Previously, religion was sort of a private sphere separate from politics, but it became very much part of politics as a result of Roe vs. Wade and other battles,” Dr. Howard said. “It then became this notion of ‘an eye for an eye.’”

Religious fundamentalists source their “tough on crime” ideals from the wrathful version of God portrayed in the Old Testament.

“If you think about Christianity and Jesus’ teachings, the message is so much more about love and support, but the way in which that message has come across in recent decades has been very, very harsh and punitive,” Dr. Howard said. “And it also overlaps with race because it’s especially white evangelicals who are the harshest on criminal justice issues.”



“The U.S. is the only country in the world that elects prosecutors and judges. It’s something that’s incomprehensible to other parts of the world,” Dr. Howard said. “Essentially, prosecutors and judges are political animals. They are raising funds, campaigning for a political party, trying to win elections, and running ads.”

In recent years, it’s been shown that 50-60 percent of political donations for key judicial positions come from lawyers, lobbyists, and business interests.

“Normally, in other countries, it would be part of a separate judicial decision-making process, but in the U.S., it’s really very political,” Dr. Howard said.

In most other parts of the world, prosecutors and judges are appointed by an executive branch official. While some think of our electoral process of choosing prosecutors as democratic, it unfortunately contributes to our mass incarceration problem. This is because “tough on crime” policies are popular among voters—and prosecutors know it.

Prosecutors are nearly 10 percent more likely to take a case to trial instead of seeking a plea bargain in the year before they for reelection according to a recent study. If the prosecutor is running in a contested election, the likelihood increases by another 15 percent. Another study found that just before election time, judges sentenced defendants from 12 to 16 months longer.



“The prison-industrial complex is an $85 billion a year business. At every stage, there are people making money off of a system that requires more and more people in prison and staying there. So it’s very hard to undo that system when it has such strong vested interests,” Dr. Howard said.

At least 37 states have legalized the contracting of prison labor by private corporations. There are 4,100 corporations engaged in the prison-industrial complex, some of which support prison labor directly through their supply chains—including IBM, Boeing, Motorola, Microsoft, AT&T, Dell, Honeywell, Intel, Nordstrom, Revlon, Macy’s, Target, and many more.

“Foodservice provides the equivalent of $4 billion of [prison] food annually. Private companies provide about half of the at least $12.3 billion spent on healthcare. Telephone companies, which can charge as much as $25 for a 15-minute call, rake in $1.3 billion,” Insider reported.

These companies have a vested interest in keeping prisons full. Over the last 10 years, the private prison industry has spent $64 million lobbying our elected officials for longer sentences, stricter laws, and tougher enforcement.

The European Model of Criminal Justice

Advocates of criminal justice reform look to European systems, which have much lower levels of incarceration, to investigate what these countries are doing right.

Norway, specifically, is often looked to as a model. The country not only has a much lower rate of incarceration, with only 75 inmates per 100,000 people compared to the U.S.’s 655 for every 100,000. The average time spent in prison is also much lower, at just over six months. This contrasts with the average U.S. prison time of almost three years.

Dr. Howard says that the reason for their success is rooted in the way they treat their prisoners.

“Norway puts a strong emphasis on rehabilitation, where people in prison are treated like human beings. They don’t wear uniforms; they wear regular clothes. They have their own kitchens. They don’t have cells; they have rooms where they have their own key,” Dr. Howard said.

“The idea is that it’s a process of growth and a transformation so that they don’t go back to a life of crime. And the results are really strong. They show that people, when they’re treated like human beings, will actually act in much more positive ways. Most people don’t want to be criminals. They don’t want to steal, they don’t want to have addictions.”

Experts believe Norway’s treatment of its incarcerated population is a major reason why it has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world, at 20 percent, whereas in the U.S., almost 44 percent of criminals released return before the first year out of prison.

“Human dignity is at the core. [The process of] re-entry begins on the first day of incarceration. By contrast, there’s very little human dignity in American prisons. So in my view, we should be treating a period of incarceration, whether it’s somebody going in for a month, a year, 10 years, or 30 years, as a process where people have opportunities to improve and to spend their time productively.”

At present, our jails and prisons are more akin to human warehousing facilities than actual correctional institutions or rehabilitation centers. Receiving little or no help with mental disorders, addiction problems, and career development makes re-entry to society difficult for ex-cons, who face starting over with criminal records.

“It puts people in these impossible situations where they are often pushed towards homelessness or towards just severe economic distress. There’s this expression that you have ‘paid your debt to society’ or you ‘served your time,’ but in reality, in the U.S., that debt is never paid because that record is always there. It’s always there for employers for potential landlords, and no matter what you do, no matter all the great things you do, it’s always going to pop up.”

Dr. Howard founded the Frederick Douglas Project for Justice in 2019 to try to address these problems. The organization aims to connect people with prisoners to change the public attitude of convicts as being irredeemable. He believes that if we are able to foster a deeper empathy for prisoners, we could accomplish systemic change.

“I know there are people who are incarcerated who’ve made bad mistakes, but every single day they live, they try to have dignity, to treat people well, and to prepare themselves for a real second chance. And unfortunately, our country doesn’t do a good job of honoring and respecting that. So I think recognizing the humanity of incarcerated people would cut through that,” he said.

“My goal would be to bring every person in the country to visit a prison because if they did, they would see things completely differently and that would help end mass incarceration.”

Nina Chamlou

Nina Chamlou

Nina Chamlou is an avid writer and multimedia content creator from Portland, OR. She writes about aviation, travel, business, technology, healthcare, and education. You can find her floating around the Pacific Northwest in diners and coffee shops, studying the locale from behind her MacBook.