What's Really To Blame for Our Bloated Prison System


Too many U.S. citizens are imprisoned. It’s more than just a bipartisan issue at this point. It’s a fact.

Two common reasons are given for this:

  • War on drugs put low-level, nonviolent offenders in prison
  • Mandatory minimums put people in prison for too long

The facts reveal, though, that the war on drugs played a very minor role in today’s imprisonment climate. Only about 17% of prisoners are serving time for drug-related offenses. This already-small segment of the prison population only continues to shrink, with drug offender imprisonment rates dropping 22% between 2006 and 2011.

The second theory for our burgeoning prison population, mandatory minimum sentences, also has holes. The spike in U.S. imprisonment has largely happened over the past few decades, but during that span, length of imprisonment hasn’t really risen significantly.

Here are the facts regarding average length of imprisonment in the U.S.:

  • Near half of the prison population serves 2-3 years
  • A small portion, about 10%, serves time longer than seven years

Appeal to Tradition

Initially, this worked. The crime rate did see a decline in the 1970s, but there is little, if any, room for arguing in favor of incarceration as a viable tactic to combat crime rates at present. What imprisonment seems to do more of these days is perpetuate a cycle of imprisonment by ripping families apart and further widen the racial and socioeconomic gap. It would be foolish to keep incarcerating offenders at the current rate just because “we’ve been doing it this way for years.”

A New Theory

A new theory has begun to emerge in light of the emerging skepticism of commonly accepted notions. Maybe it’s the prosecutors. Some posit that, in an attempt to secure more convictions, prosecutor's started bringing more felony charges, compelling defendants to take plea bargains. More plea bargains mean more convictions, and more convictions mean more people going to prison.

What about the financial burden imprisonment places on the state? Wouldn’t the prosecutor's care about this? Turns out, maybe not. Most prosecutors are paid by the county, not by the state, which is why they may not care about the financial consequences of sending more and more people to prison. The prosecutorial theory is still just that – a theory. It’s incredibly difficult to get enough data from the prosecution world to draw concrete conclusions.

For now, it may be most appropriate to say that reality is complex, and phenomena like our nation’s too-large prison population can’t be boiled down to a single factor. We would do well to take the time to identify all possible contributing factors, and to go a step further to do something about it.