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Jalynn Clancy

English 102

Dr. Wynne

March 14th, 2017

Literature Review: Mass Incarceration

Since 2002, the United States has had the highest incarceration rate in the world

(Tsai et al.) and it shows no signs of decreasing any time soon. Mass incarceration is a

complex issue; but the most perplexing segment of mass incarceration is analyzing which

solution will create the best outcome. To make this decision, there are 4 essential questions that

must be accounted for:

1. What are some factors that contribute to mass incarceration?

2. Is there a particular part of the justice system that plays a key role in the epidemic; or is it

the justice system as whole?

3. Who are the groups of people that are directly and indirectly affected by mass

4. What are the policies being put into place to prevent mass incarceration?

The following literature review analyzes the several social, political, and judicial factors of

mass incarceration, the people that are affected by it, a multitude of prevention policies, and

the progressive advancements necessary to end this epidemic.

What are some factors that contribute to mass incarceration?

Researchers have the tendency to blame growing incarceration rates on one sole policy or

social issue; but few have stopped to consider that there may be multiple different factors that

contribute to mass incarceration. To accuse one specific policy or idea as being the root of all

judicial and social injustice, over simplifies the issue and does the topic at hand a great
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disservice. To successfully decrease the rate of imprisonment, it is essential that America looks at

every aspect of incarceration and considers every possible factor.

To locate the contributing factors of mass incarceration, a survey was conducted in March

2017, with the sole intention of gaining a general idea of possible public opinions on this subject.

This survey includes a relatively diverse group, of 25 participants, that volunteered to assist me

in my research. They were asked basic questions concerning demographics, such as age and

ethnicity, as well as opinion based questions that will be revealed throughout this review. The

first question on the survey asked if the participant was familiar with the concept of mass

incarceration. While 44% of the participants claimed to be familiar with the topic, 56% of the

participants lacked clarity on the subject matter (See Figure 1). The staggering percentage of

people with insufficient knowledge on mass incarceration lead to the understanding that the

deficiency in clear information on the subject could be a contributing factor. This is an important

possibility to be conscious of because a solution will never be found without an apparent

comprehension of the problem itself.

The survey also asked participants if they felt like mass incarceration was an important

social issue; and although 76% of the participants felt like it was, 24% felt like it was somewhat

of an important issue, or not an important issue at all (See Figure 2). This data gives insight to

the likelihood that people not only lack education on mass incarceration, but it is possible that

they fail to see its relevance as well.

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Figure 1. Are you familiar with the concept of mass incarceration? Figure 2. Do you feel like mass incarceration is an important
Graph provided by SurveyMonkey.com social issue? Graph Provided by SurveyMonkey.com

Another contributing factor is poor education. This factor is often overlooked and

dismissed as being trivial; but it is a proven fact that prisoners tend to be less educated...

(Tsai et al.). Specifically, the average state prisoner has a 10th grade education, and about

70 percent [of the prisoners] have not completed high school (Tsai et al.). This is not a

coincidence. Most nonviolent offenders commit their crimes with the idea that it will create

success or financial security; but if these same criminals were supported through their

respective educational systems, maybe they would have chosen a better route. People are

products of their environment, and although creating a more consistent and reliable

educational system will not stop all criminals, it may curtail a few.

There are also legal factors such as longer sentences for similar crimes, high jail fees, and

increasing amount of people being sent to jail (Wrzesniewski). These influencers are discussed

by Jakub Wrzesniewski in his commentary entitled The Scariest Explanation for America's Vast

Prison Population: We Want It That Way. In this article, Wrzesniewski mentions the idea of

middle class entitlement and he molds this idea upon the fact that voters love a tough-on-crime
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candidate (Wrzesniewski) and rather than prefer rational punishment for all, voters aware of

unjust incarceration seem to prefer harsher, more callous treatment for all (Wrzesniewski). But,

the key element of middle class entitlement is that people can only feel this harsh towards

criminal punishment, if they are sure they will never be in the same situation (Wrzesniewski).

Wrzesniewski identifies lack of empathy as a contributing factor and calls for a nationwide shift

in values and ethics (Wrzesniewski).

Is there a particular part of the justice system that plays a key role in the epidemic; or is it

the justice system as whole?

Every segment of the justice system shares responsibility in the development of mass

incarceration. Laws such as mandatory minimum sentences and the increase in jail fees (as

mentioned previously) obviously hold some responsibility, but different segments within the

system play major roles as well. These segments can be divided into the imprisonment process,

and the rehabilitation process that allows prisoners to reunite with mainstream society.
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The arrest, jail, and court process need to be held accountable for part of the incarceration

rate. The process begins with a few policemen and women [cataloguing] demographic

information on
Figure 3. Pretrial policies drive jail
growth. Graph provided by Prison
Policy Initiative: Compiled from the
Bureau of Justice Statistics Series
Prison and Jail Inmates at Midyear,
Correctional Populations in the United
those in groups
States, and Jail Inmates. Missing data
for 1994 extrapolated from 1993 and
with high rates of
1995 values.
crime, and

[placing] them under special surveillance or

[ blatantly arresting] them for suspicion (Russell). This invasion of civil rights not only accounts

for who is incarcerated, but also the amount of people incarcerated (see figure 3). Specifically,

this encroachment on civil liberties is a violation of the Fourth Amendment which states the

right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable

searches and seizures (Alexander 132).

Then the process moves into the legal and judicial processes, where prosecutors have

been proven to stack offenses to force the plaintiff into a plea bargain. They do this by

agreeing to drop a select number of the charges . In exchange for [the accused forfeiting] his

or her Fifth, Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment rights of protection against self-incrimination, to

trial by jury, to confront and cross-examine adverse witnesses, to present evidence, to compel the

attendance of witnesses, and to require prosecutors to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt

(Heiner). This method gives prosecutors a dangerous amount of power, while mandatory
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minimum sentences simultaneously [removes] discretionary power from judges who might

otherwise be able to exercise judgment about whether prison is an appropriate response to a

crime (Wrzesniewski). This system effectively ...mass-produces inmates, with little sensitivity

to whether prison is the appropriate retribution, let alone effective rehabilitation


The final division is the rehabilitation process; or rather the lack of. One challenge in

creating an effective reintegration program is distinguishing between the addict who may

have a high risk of recidivating for low- level offenses (for example, probation violations for

positive drug tests) and a released prisoner with a lower risk to recidivate but whose offenses

have a greater potential for lethality. (Lobuglio et al.). After shuffling for a solution to the

previous problem, there needs to be an investment [in] an infrastructure of community-based

correctional facilities throughout the country . Ideally, the centers will be located near job and

transportation centers, and be run by local correctional and public safety agencies (Lobuglio et

al.). By investing in diverse correctional facilities, it is likely that prisoners will be able to

diminish some of the social pressures (lack of education, unemployment, and housing

discrimination), that might push them back into the judicial system.

Who are the groups of people that are directly and indirectly affected by mass


Every person, in every demographic and social class, is affected by mass incarceration;

but certain ethnicities are impacted more than others. It is a well-known and indisputable fact

that minority members are more likely to be arrested, more likely to be charged, less likely to

have the charge bargained down, more likely to be found guilty, and more likely to get a longer

sentence (Wrzesniewski); but this is not necessarily due to higher crime rates in communities of
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color. It is also unfair to attribute the increasing incarceration rates of minority members to

blatant racism, because to do so is to [treat] racism as an unchanging force

independent of historical conditions (Russell), which is simply not the

case. Although bigotry and prejudice contribute to who is being arrested and

how they are apprehended, it is not the sole determinant. The incarceration

of young African American and Hispanic men, is not simply a political issue

but a social issue. Not only are these communities impacted because of their

lack of government support, but they also face the most stereotypes, micro-

aggressions, and misconceptions.

People who have witnessed mass incarceration from a comfortable distance tend to

attribute the staggering increase in incarceration rates in communities of color to the

predictable, though unfortunate, consequences of poverty, racial segregation, [and] unequal

educational opportunities... (Alexander 31). These assumptions are undoubtedly related to

Wrzesniewski middle-class entitlement theory. Most people are not aware of problems that they

perceive to have no effect on them, but they fail to realize that the high incarceration rates of any

demographic will inadvertently affect all of America. An increase in incarceration rates

obviously leads to an increase in taxes, but it also brings to light the failure of the nation. This

nation is only as virtuous as its lowest citizen, so when any member of this country struggles

with incarceration, it is an indicator of the status of the entire nation.

What are the policies being put into place to prevent mass incarceration?

In July 2015 President Barack Obama extended commutations to 46 federal

prisoners (Lobuglio et al.) but this is only a minor progression when tackling a major

controversy. To combat the lack of progress, the government launched the Justice Reinvestment
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Initiative program. But the current model of the JRI is failing, due to the absence of clarity and

structure in its development. So, in the essay Ending Mass Incarceration: Charting a New

Justice Reinvestment, several researchers, analyst, and advocates work to cultivate a more

promising plan (Austin et al.).

The authors acknowledge that there are five critical concerns with the current JRI and

those include the Insufficient Targeting of the Key Corrections Reduction Policy

Mechanisms, Limited Involvement of Well Established Local and State Advocacy Groups,

Limitations of Short-Term Technical Assistance, Insufficient and/or Misdirected Reinvestment

and Failure to Reduce Structural Disincentives (Austin et al.). But within these five

dilemmas, are five solutions. The article dissects the idea that the correctional population is a

function of two factors: admissions (including revocations to prison from probation and parole)

and [the] length of stay (Austin et al.), and suggest that for policy makers to reduce the

incarceration rates, they must decrease these determinants instead of focusing on recidivism

rates, which has been proven to be ineffective (Austin et al.) (see figure 4).

Figure 4. Confinement is just one slice

of the correctional control pie.
Graph provided by Prison Policy The authors also
Initiative. For Sources and data notes:
See advocate the inclusion
e2017.html of several correctional

advocacy groups

because the challenge

of organizing and

maintaining ambition for this issue can only be tackled by groups with long term investments

and interest (Austin et al.). The third and fourth dominant concerns involve a deficiency in
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implementation oversight; meaning that there needs to be a system that ensures the quality of the

developed plans (Austin et al.). For example, the JRI proposed that savings from reduced

correctional populations should be poured back into struggling communities; but the current JRI

failed to maintain that proposal (Austin et al.). The final point addresses how the current criminal

justice system has been incentivized by federal grants and the promise of more jobs (Austin et

al.). To solve these issues, the new Justice Reinvestment Initiative needs to refocus their goals,

attack the problem with more aggression, reward decreases in correctional population (without

increasing crime rates), circulate their savings back into the community, and implement a plan of



Mass incarceration is a complex and intricate social issue that needs to be handled with

precision. For it to continue, it only needs the silence of this country; but for mass incarceration

to end, it needs a nationwide shift in empathy and compassion. Solutions will not be found in

concerns over the economic aspects of confinement, because it will only prompt America to find

a cheap way out of the situation. Additionally, solutions will not be found in reversing the

political legislation that got America to these rates. Positive results will only be created through

the realization that not only is mass incarceration a critical predicament, but it is devastating the

lives of millions of people. It is important to look at the incarceration rate as more than just a set

of numbers. Each number is an actual person with dreams they wish to achieve, and a family that

worries about them. When America begins to treat prisoners as human beings that have made

mistakes, instead of disposable undesirables, only then will there be an actual change in the

judicial system.
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Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

Revised, New York, NY, The New Press, 2012.

Austin, James, et al. Ending Mass Incarceration: Charting a New Justice Reinvestment. From

the War on Poverty to the War on Crime, 2016, doi:10.4159/9780674969223-001.

Accessed 5 Mar. 2017.

Clancy, Jalynn. Mass Incarceration in the United States of America. Survey. 13 Mar. 2017.

Heiner, B. "The Procedural Entrapment of Mass Incarceration: Prosecution, Race,

and the Unfinished Project of American Abolition." Philosophy & Social Criticism 42.6 (2015):

594-631. Sage Journals. Web. 4 Mar. 2017.


Lobuglio, Stefan F. and Anne Morrison Piehl. "Unwinding Mass Incarceration." Issues in

Science & Technology, vol. 32, no. 1, Fall2015, pp. 56-61. EBSCOhost,


Russell, Thaddeus. "No way out: Talking about racism won't end mass incarceration." Reason,

Feb. 2017, p. 58+. Opposing Viewpoints in Context, libweb3.hamptonu.edu/login?


u=hampton_main&xid=c799b4a3. Accessed 21 Feb. 2017.

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Tsai, Tyjen, and Paola Scommegna. U.S. Has World's Highest Incarceration Rate. U.S. Has

World's Highest Incarceration Rate, Aug. 2012,

www.prb.org/Publications/Articles/2012/us-incarceration.aspx. Accessed 4 Mar. 2017.

Wagner, Peter, and Bernadette Rabuy. Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2016. Prison Policy

Initiative, 14 March 2016. www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2016.html. Accessed 1 Mar.


Wrzesniewski, Jakub. "The Scariest Explanation for America's Vast Prison Population: We Want

It That Way." America's Prisons, edited by Jack Lasky, Greenhaven Press, 2016.

Opposing Viewpoints. Opposing Viewpoints in Context, libweb3.hamptonu.edu/login?


u=hampton_main&xid=e1a7b842. Accessed 21 Feb. 2017. Originally published

in Pacific Standard, 6 Jan. 2015.