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Earlier this month, President Obama announced a major plan to reduce the U.S. prison population. The U.S. Justice Department will begin releasing 6,000 inmates from federal prisons all across the U.S. It's the largest coordinated effort of its kind in U.S. history.
In this edition of TestTube News, we take a look at how exactly the U.S. prison population become so large. According to The Sentencing Project, there are roughly 2.2 million people in prison in the U.S. In other terms, it's about 1 in every 100 people. That figure is the result of years of "tough on crime" policy that really took root in the 1970s. President Nixon ushered in the "War on Drugs," an approach to combating drug use and drug sales that has largely been regarded as a failure. Politicians carried on this approach well into the 1980s, often building successful campaigns by promising voters they would be "tough on crime."
This era gave way to stricter sentencing laws, particularly for drug-related crimes. Prison sentences were extended and parole was reduced as a means of keeping criminals off public streets. At the same time, these laws disproportionately hurt poor minorities. While funding and resources for prisons expanded, government mental health programs were gutted. This forced clinics to release many people out onto the streets, and many eventually wound up in the prison system. In addition, immigrants and non-U.S. citizens often find themselves in prison as they await potential deportation.
Reform advocates say the incarceration problem in the U.S. is immense, but this release of 6,000 inmates (most of whom are non-violent drug offenders) is a promising start. In a country with companies that actually profit by increasing prison populations, though, it's a long road ahead.
Nation Behind Bars (hrw.org)
"For decades, the United States has passed laws that discount other forms of punishment in favor of incarceration."
Ronald Reagan and the Commitment of the Mentally Ill: Capital, Interest Groups, and the Eclipse of Social Policy (sociology.org)
"Conventional wisdom suggests that the reduction of funding for social welfare policies during the 1980s is the result of a conservative backlash against the welfare state."
State Mental Health Cuts: A National Crisis (nami.org)
"The recent tragic shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the killing of six innocent citizens in Arizona focused national attention on the state of the public mental health system in Arizona and other states."
What Causes Overcrowding in Jails and Prisons? (massdecarcerate.org)
"'In 2004 the United States surpassed Russia in incarceration rates to become the world leader.'"