Mass Incarceration in the United States


This paper deals with the problem of mass incarceration, which has been a feature of the United States for many years. The US currently has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. Although this figure has been steadily decreasing in recent years, the number of people in prisons remains extremely high. The main reasons for this are the features of the criminal justice system, as well as racial and socio-economic disparities. Mass incarceration, in general, leads to an increased level of recidivism due to the inability of many people to reintegrate into society, which also has a negative impact on the development of society. Thus, the paper also considers the measures that are necessary to address the problem, including the reform of the criminal justice system.


Although in recent years, there has been a gradual decrease in the incarceration rate, this figure in the US remains the highest in the world. Leipold (2019) states that “the United States incarcerates more people than anyone else in the world, both in absolute terms and per capita” (p. 1580). It is also noted that while the US has 5% of the world’s population, it is accounted for about 20% of the world’s prison inmates (Leipold, 2019, p. 1580). The data is supported by a study conducted by the Pew Research Center, which reports that in 2019, about 2.1 million people were incarcerated in the United States (Gramlich, 2021). Thus, in 2019, approximately the incarceration rate was 810 people in prison for every 100,000 US adults (Gramlich, 2021). It is noted that the peak of the incarceration rate was observed in the period from 2006 to 2009 when more than a thousand people per 100 thousand citizens were in prison (Gramlich, 2021). Thus, in recent years, the number of prisoners in the United States has been declining, but not significantly compared to the rest of the world.

Within the framework of incarceration research, it is difficult to determine the specific roots of the problem. One of the possible reasons for this situation may be the structure of the US criminal justice system. In particular, factors such as longer sentences for criminal cases and more criminalization can significantly contribute to the increase in the number of people in prison (Leipold, 2019). However, researchers also note that high incarceration rates are associated with racial and economic disparities (Flores, 2018; Pettit & Gutierrez, 2018). In particular, more than 60% of prisoners are black and brown people, as well as poorly educated and low-income people (Hobor & Plough, 2019, p. 13). Thus, the causes of mass incarceration lie mainly in the structural features of both the US government and society.

This phenomenon has an impact both on individuals affected by the problem and on society as a whole. The researchers note that in addition to high incarceration rates, the United States has the highest percentage of recidivism, which exceeds 75% (Flores, 2018, p. 57). Those convicted of criminal offenses often lose the opportunity to get a normal job and integrate into society, which, with such a high number of prisoners, leads to mass recidivism. Former prisoners simply cannot find any other way of existence except for the repeated commission of crimes. For society, mass incarceration is associated primarily with increased spending on the maintenance of the criminal justice system and prisons (Flores, 2018; Leipold, 2019; Pettit & Gutierrez, 2018). However, an increase in the number of people in prisons also leads to an increase in the risk of recidivism and, as a result, a worsening of the criminological situation (Flores, 2018). These aspects identify that mass incarceration is largely related to the inability of the government to deal effectively with the punishment of criminals.

Current punitive measures lead to the growth of socio-economic as well as racial disparities. Campbell and Vogel (2017) underline that “for subsequent generations, mass incarceration and the seemingly race-neutral ideological structures that support it have become largely normalized” (p. 64). Constantly high incarceration rates in the country sooner or later lead to the formation of the perception of this problem as the norms and characteristics of society. In turn, given the racial and economic disparities that are likely to be the cause of the problem, mass incarceration also leads to a normalization of the structural bias.

There is also the influence of the existing mental health system and mass incarceration rates in the US. Leipold (2019) states that high incarceration rates may be associated with the ineffectiveness of the treatment of mental disorders, in particular substance abuse. The researcher notes that “the run-up in prison rates is largely offset by the sharp decrease in mental health confinement” (Leipold, 2019, p. 1589). Thus, prison is often an alternative to the effective treatment of mental disorders in specialized institutions. This aspect additionally leads to an increase in the number of prisoners in the United States and a reduction in the effort to treat mental health patients who are potentially dangerous to society.

The problem of mass incarceration has become so acute and leads to negative transformations in society that it needs to be addressed. First of all, the reform of sentencing practices is needed to address an existing problem (Beckett, 2018). These aspects include revisiting sentencing practices with respect to non-violent crimes, which involves reducing the length of sentences and grounds for confinement. Additionally, it is necessary to eliminate cash bail opportunities that lead to discrimination against low-income people. Finally, a more effective system for assessing the mental health of people who may be a danger to society is needed. Timely and appropriate treatment of mental disorders can significantly reduce the number of prisoners.


The literature review provides an opportunity to define the problem of mass incarceration and its key aspects. First of all, the USA has the highest incarceration rate in the world. The reason for this problem is the criminal justice system with long sentences and a wide range of crimes involving imprisonment. An additional factor is also racial and socio-economic discrimination, which determines the main negative effects of the phenomenon on society and individuals. In particular, high incarceration rates are also associated with a high level of recidivism, which, combined with pressure on certain groups in society, leads to the formation of dysfunctional communities. The ineffectiveness of the system of treatment of mental disorders of individuals potentially dangerous to society and the replacement of adequate treatment with a prison term also have a negative impact on the situation.


The problem of mass incarceration has a number of negative effects on US society and currently needs to be addressed. Researchers have widely emphasized the role of the criminal justice system, as well as pervasive structural discrimination in relation to racial and socio-economic status. These aspects should form the basis of efforts to reduce the number of people in prisons in order to minimize the negative effect on societies and certain communities.


Beckett, K. (2018). Incarceration. Annual Review of Criminology, 1, 235-259. Web.

Campbell, M. C., & Vogel, M. (2017). The demographic divide: Population dynamics, race and the rise of mass incarceration in the United States. Punishment & Society, 21(1), 47-69. Web.

Flores, N. E. (2018). Contributing factors to mass incarceration and recidivism. Themis: Research Journal of Justice Studies and Forensic Science, 6(1), 1-15. Web.

Gramlich, J. (2021). America’s incarceration rate falls to the lowest level since 1995. Pew Research Center. Web.

Hobor, G., & Plough, A. (2019). Addressing mass incarceration to achieve health equity. American Journal of Public Health, 110(1), 13. Web.

Leipold, A. D. (2019). Is mass incarceration inevitable? American Criminal Law Review, 56(1), 1579-1620. Web.

Pettit, B., & Gutierrez, C. (2018). Mass incarceration and racial inequality. The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 77(3-4), 1152-1182. Web.

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