Sociologist Salvatore Babones recently began a series on Truthout.org that centers around policy issues relevant to 2016 political campaigns. One of the most pressing issues is mass incarceration. Nearly 3 percent of the adult population in the United States is under the control of the country’s criminal justice system by either being in prison, on probation, or on parole. To put this in perspective, if the population of the U.S. prison system were a state, it would rank as the 14th largest, making it larger than the population of Massachusetts, and just under the population of Washington state.
As Babones points out, mass incarceration is “no way to run a country. Too many people are in prison for too long, and too many people are in prison for crimes they did not commit or for activities that should never have been classified as crimes in the first place.” Although optimists may point out that conditions are improving because of the current decline in the number of people under correctional supervision as well as the number of new incarcerations, the underlying cause reveals that it is not due to altruistic reasons. The decline is due to the fact that many states can no longer afford to keep so many people incarcerated.
One of the most concerning aspects of mass incarceration is the fact that so many people wind up behind bars for nonviolent crimes. Nearly 70 percent of newly incarcerated state inmates and a large majority of newly incarcerated federal inmates have committed nonviolent crimes. Some of these inmates have committed such harmless crimes as protesting. The recent Occupy movement saw a number of young people arrested, tasered, or shot for not following police commands during peaceful protests. This is alarming considering America is supposed to be a democracy with constitutionally protected rights to free assembly and free speech.
Another unnerving problem related to mass incarceration is the number of people who are wrongfully convicted and have had their sentences overturned. More than one-third of all inmates who received the death sentence since 1973 have been exonerated. The fact that there are many roadblocks within the criminal justice system to having sentences overturned means that the rate of wrongful conviction is most likely much higher than exoneration statistics indicate.
America can no longer claim to be a beacon of democracy to the rest of the world when it criminalizes constitutionally protected rights and operates a criminal justice system that sees more than one-third of it’s citizens labeled as criminals. The amount of power that the American government has over its citizens through the criminal justice system is quickly turning the “land of the free” into a police state. It is imperative that all citizens who value their freedom and American democracy unite in the upcoming 2016 presidential election to ensure that the freedom and rights of all American citizens do not continue to be violated by a criminal justice system that uses mass incarceration to control and exploit American citizens. As Babones states: “Modern governments have at their disposal awesome powers of domination and control. We have to make sure that our federal, state and local governments don’t dominate and control us.”