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The Root Causes of Crime: Drugs, Inequality, Poverty

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Why care about mass incarceration or its root factors? As a society, we all want to live in a safe neighborhood, and people who are a danger to society should be locked up behind bars. However, why is it that America has 2.3 million people behind bars ( Dreisinger 8)? Should society claim that all these individuals behind bars are criminals? It is wrong for society to entitle that all people behind bars are criminals when society itself had a role in sending them to prison. We call America the land of the free, but more people are ending up in jail each year. Society should care about mass incarceration because the impact of mass incarceration has led to weakening society, destructing families, and disenfranchising millions of Americans. According to The Sentencing Project, African American disenfranchisement rates are above 15% (Felon Disenfranchisement by State). Mass incarceration is also life-changing and can have a huge impact on an individual, causing mental illness, leading to joblessness, increasing recidivism rate, and more. Many factors have to lead to mass incarceration, however, the root causes are drugs, inequality, and poverty. To change the future and end mass incarceration, society should understand the root causes of crime to work on preventing them. In addition, the government should revise the laws that have to lead to mass incarceration.

How much of mass incarceration is a result of the war on drugs? Between the 1920s and 1960s, America uses to incarcerate about 1 in 1,000 people every year (Ahrens 51). In the 1970s, mass incarceration increased dramatically. America started to increase by about 5 in 1,000 people each year. After President Richard Nixon declared the war on drugs in 1971, the incarceration rate increased from 95 percent per 100,000 in 1971 to 153 percent per 100,000 in 1981. President Richard Nixon’s goal was to target substance abuse, so he proposed strict laws such as mandatory prison sentencing for drug crimes. Yet more and more people were incarcerated for drug crimes. The incarceration rate in 2013 was 702 per 100,000.

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As a result of the war on drugs, many policymakers agreed that president Richard Nixon’s law was a failure. Others argued that state governor, Nelson Rockefeller, who enacted The Rockefeller Drug Laws in 1973 played a role in mass incarceration. Nelson Rockefeller’s goal was to get addicts clean from drugs. The Rockefeller Drug Laws mandated long prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. Some also claim that the Rockefeller drug laws caused racial disparities. People argued that the Rockefeller Drug Laws promoted harsh sentencing, especially for the low-income citizens. The former Republican senator, John Dunne who was the original sponsor of the Rockefeller Drug Laws stated, “The Rockefeller Drug Laws failed to achieve their goals… they have handcuffed our judges, filled our prisons to overcrowded conditions, and denied sufficient drug treatment alternatives to nonviolent addicted offenders who need help.” John Dunne who supported the Rockefeller Drug Laws came to realize that it caused harm to American society. Unlike others support, John Dunne asserts that the Rockefeller Drug Laws “denied sufficient drug treatment.”(

While punishment in America grew harder, the Judicial system started to have policies like lengthy detention before trial, long periods of isolation during confinement, life without parole, death penalties for young people, and long sentencing for minor thefts and possession of drugs. America started to spend billions of dollars to keep people in prison. The Government should take action in ending its war on drugs by rehabilitating nonviolent drug offenders. It is a shame to see America sending people who need medical treatment and rehabilitation to prison.

Racial inequality and poverty have led to the occurrence of multiple crimes in American society. Racial bias is seen about 41 percent in urban communities and 24 percent in rural communities ( Patten). The majority of people who are more likely to be incarcerated are those of poverty and those of color. According to statistics of Bureau of Justice Statistics from October 2015, the number of African Americans in federal prisons was 63,616 about 34.7 percent of the prison population. For whites, the number of prisoners was 49,547 about 27.1 percent of the prison population ( Bureau of Justice Statistics 8). Poverty rates are more than three times higher than whites and unemployment rates of Blacks and Latinos are twice as high as whites. Even when an African-American commits a minor violation he or she is unable to pay bail or bond to the court to be released due to poverty. So, this leads the person to be incarcerated for a couple of years affecting his future life and his mental health

A child is more likely to become incarcerated if she or she has an incarcerated parent. Black children are 8 times likely to have an incarcerated parent than white children. If a child’s surrounding environment abstracts education and economic opportunities, this leads to poverty which can lead to committing a crime. (Edelman). Certain individuals argue that crime is a rational choice and who commits a crime or breaks the law should be held accountable. However, others argue that society shouldn’t hold nonviolent youths responsible for ending up in jail. Some of these youths are raised in vulnerable communities with no opportunity to build their future. Some minorities grow up in a violent community, which raises their likelihood of developing violent behaviors. If a community would offer its residents social and economic opportunities, then residents in that community would be less likely to commit a crime. As Michelle Alexander, the author of The New Jim Crow states, “ We could choose to be a nation that extends care, compassion, and concern to those who are locked up… or we can choose to be a nation that shames and blames its most vulnerable.”()

Michelle Alexander asserts that society has a choice in how it views and treats its citizens…She points out that the American nation needs to change and that society should embrace humanity to help reduce mass incarceration by showing “care, compassion, and concern” especially for the ones who are “headed for prison before they are old enough to vote”(Kilgore 13).

Our criminal justice system centers its attention more on punishment rather than rehabilitation. Our government imposes more and more harsh punishments thinking it will address the problem, yet it only leads to the rise of admissions to prisons. Authorities should understand the social and economic factors that can lead to a crime to address them. The majority of the minorities are incarcerated mainly due to unemployment, lack of education, and poverty. Of the 2.3 million incarcerated, 64% of them are minorities. So what led to this increase? Individuals argue that the school-to-prison pipeline pushes students into the juvenile justice system. Schools were given the authority to employ discipline policies for students who showed minor classroom misbehaviors. Some argued against the school-to-prison pipeline because it favored incarceration over education and rehabilitation. Others debated that these policies are needed to keep schools safe. The Safe and Gun-Free School Act of 1994, made it mandatory for schools to expel a student for at least one year for the possession of a gun on school grounds. The Zero Tolerance policy and the harsh juvenile sentencing have led to many youths being thrown off to prison with no path of success.

Building a prison has become a big business for some people in America. On average the United States spends $88,000 a year for a youth to be kept behind bars, which is twice the cost of an adult (Kilgore 129). According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the United States spends about $81 billion a year for mass incarceration. Mass incarceration only causes more problems, it has victimized the prisoners, harmed families, damaged communities, and cost America billions of dollars.

There has also been a rapid growth of women in prisons.

Prisons are needed to keep violent offenders off the street. Although many nonviolent offenders require more rehabilitation rather than punishment and imprisonment.

Criminals should gain full rehabilitation before being released to society. As a society, we must have compassion for these citizens that show signs of repentance. Offenders who do not show signs of violent behaviors and who are willing to change should be presented with a genuine path to redemption.

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