The Missing Pieces of the Mass Incarceration Narrative

Courtesy of “”

Courtesy of “”

We’re all aware of the well-documented and much-analyzed disproportionately high incarceration rate of minorities. Researchers and pundits have asserted that these high incarceration rates are due to a variety of causes including lack of education, low incomes, and lack of fathers in the household. While these factors, of course, tend to influence the likelihood of criminality, I think there are two key pieces of the narrative that have been ignored.

First, few have looked at the opportunities, or lack thereof, provided to low-level criminals that lead to recidivism. Currently, nearly half of incarceration individuals will be re-arrested within three years of their release date, normally for property crimes including theft, larceny, possessing stolen property, or selling illegal weapons. Why are these rates so high and what have we done as a society to curb this outcome?

Overall, not much. After a prisoner’s release, a job, income, and steady place to live can be hard to come by. Research by the Urban Institute shows that less than half of released prisoners find and maintain employment within one year after release, more than two thirds of those jobs being low-skilled and low-paying. Additionally nearly two-thirds of recently released prisoners lack a steady home and report moving to more than one location within one year of re-entry. With all these challenges, it is no surprise that recidivism is so common.

We also must consider the skew of incarceration rates due to the fact that we, as a society, tend not to prosecute “white-collar” crimes or “white-collar” criminals.

Prosecution of white-collar crimes has been steadily decreasing since the U.S. declared war drugs. In fact, only 1,251 cases of financial fraud were filed in 2011, despite widely known corruption and mismanagement of some of the world’s largest financial institutions. Meanwhile, millions of low-level criminals, drug users, and third-strikers are being imprisoned, swelling the prison population from 500,000 in the 1980’s to more than 2.3 million today.

Even when prosecuted, these “white collar” criminals often face little to no jail time because of their ability to hire expensive lawyers. Minorities are 20% more likely to face jail time when charges with the same offenses as white counterparts.

Including these two factors into the narrative can reshape discussions on minority incarceration rates. Rather than placing full blame on the individual, some must be placed on the system that disproportionately prosecutes minorities and traps them in a cycle of criminality. Doing so may just discourage the demonization of these people and allow the system to treat all in a just and humane way.

by Jenna Engebretson

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  1. Blaire Smith

     /  December 16, 2013

    I agree with Jenna. The system is designed to keep the incarcerated oppressed. My cousin who was incarcerated for 20 years was recently released and within six months found himself back in jail for violating one of the stipulations of his probation. After being released, I was able to chat with him about what occurred and one of the things that he kept saying was, ” this is no way to live.” He was very frustrated that not only did he serve his time but, now was forced to taylor his life to the rules of his probation. He is not able to live further than 10 miles from a designated area. As he was looking for work, he was able to find various job opportunities however, none of them fell within his authorized designated proximity. After being frustrated regarding not being able to find a job in his area, he decided to bypass the rules which, ultimately, landed him back in jail. However, to me it seemed like he had no choice. It was either take the job that was 20 miles away or go back to the streets. Even though he made a concious choice to do the right thing he was still penalized. My question to you is, does the system really want these individuals to succeed or is it set-up for them to fail?


  2. Kelsey

     /  March 12, 2014

    Michelle Alexander did a lecture during my undergrad. She was great! She spoke poignantly about the two points that you expressed, and place emphasis on the status of being deemed a second-class citizen during and after a criminal offense. The disproportionate figures are astonishing, but something that is often overlooked is the probationary period and having rights taken away. It seems as if more attention has been given to this issue and it will hopefully be addressed swiftly and progressively. Something else that is frustrating are mandatory minimums!



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