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Mass Incarceration in the US

There are around 6.7 million persons who are subject to some form of court-ordered supervision in the US. The inability to vote has long-term or even permanent ramifications for millions of felons who have been convicted of crimes. Even though the US criminal justice system covers many crimes, many citizens have a skewed perception of it. As a result, popular culture has helped shape popular perceptions of the system in many ways, including movies and television shows. Reality can be pretty different from what society expects. Real-life can be a striking contrast. Rural and primarily white communities gain political power at the expense of more densely populated metropolitan areas when states and local governments count incarcerated people as prison residents rather than their home districts. This can also be attributed to the political spending of wealthy private interests and laws that reduce voter registration and turnout. Therefore, this paper critically analyzes mass incarceration as a form of punishment in the US, its history, and its resultant consequences. It also discusses the social values and morals related to this topic. In the end, it provides recommendations that will help reduce higher rates of mass incarcerations to help create a more socially beloved community.It has been three decades since the United States implemented innovative, previously unheard-of policies and tactics to combat crime by emphasizing severe, disproportionate punishment rather than crime prevention or victim assistance. In 1980, there were just 1.84 million people on probation or parole in the US., which rose to 7.25 million by 2010 (Nott, 2016). The United States possesses over a quarter of the world’s prison population, in spite of contributing to just five percent of the world’s population. According to Sawyer & Wagner (2020), there has been a 700% increase in the number of persons incarcerated in the US since 1970, reaching 2.3 million now, considerably exceeding population growth and overall crime rates. Nevertheless, this academic word does not adequately capture the absurdity of the situation.

Mass incarceration is defined as the exclusive way that the US has imprisoned an many people in the state and federal prisons and local jails. The US has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world when compared to other nations (Pettit & Gutierrez, 2018). Despite recent decreases in the overall number of individuals imprisoned in correctional facilities and jails, the US continues to have the highest incarceration rate globally. The probability of imprisonment in the US is ten times more higher compared to those in Sweden, Denmark, or the Netherlands (Pettit & Gutierrez, 2018). Moreover, those living in the UK are four times less likely to be imprisoned than those living in the US. Many of those incarcerated need care that can be found in the local community.

Prison and jail overcrowding do not disproportionately affect all demographic segments of society in the same way. The systematic incarceration of specific groups of people defines mass incarceration (Pettit & Gutierrez, 2018). Like all criminal justice contact, incarceration tends to concentrate more among men, blacks, and those with low levels of formal education. Nott (2016) argues that Black and Latino inmates make up a disproportionate number of those in jail, and the system is prejudiced against them on every level. Young black males in the US who drop out of high school face a much greater risk of being imprisoned than any other group. Prison overcrowding and fiscal pressures on governments have occurred as a result of these developments. This arises even after overwhelming evidence that mass incarceration is not the only efficient strategy of ensuring the safety of the public.

The second question to ask is: why are so many people imprisoned? How many drug offenders are in prison? Is incarceration being driven by the business interests of private corporations? Alternatively, is it a matter of public safety and removing dangerous individuals from public view? Sawyer & Wagner (2020) explain that there are numerous fallacies concerning incarceration in the modern period. Although most contain some truth, these myths divert people from focusing on essential factors that lead to prison populations.

The Republican and Democratic governments employed the prison as a first and not as a last resort in the 1980s and 1990s. It arose because of the “tough on crime” mindset and the brutal “War on Drugs” ideologies adopted. When vying for public office, a candidate’s refusal to compromise becomes integral to the campaign strategy (Nott, 2016). When it came to drug-code infractions, elected officials competed with each other to see how harshly they might penalize those who defied the law. Imprisonment of more individuals resulted from increasingly minor transgressions that arose from the rules adopted by legislators. These policies were supplemented with additional regulations that kept people locked up longer (Nott, 2016). Therefore, non-violent offenses were viewed as legitimate reasons for imprisoning people. However, the United States’ treatment of its citizenry is everything but typical.

Three decades ago, the US developed a massive system of state punishment that destroys people’s lives and communities, racially discriminatingly, at a substantial financial cost. Race-based incarceration disparities constitute a significant problem in the criminal justice system (Duxbury, 2021). When it comes to incarceration, the racial inequality in the US prison population is six times greater than the disparity in wealth, employment, and education combined. Prisoners’ criminal records follow them throughout their lives, preventing them from obtaining high-paying employment and higher education (Surprenant, 2020). Therefore, these arguments have led to comparing mass imprisonment to Jim Crow segregation because of its fundamental function as a producer and perpetuator of race disparity in society.

So, this is where the practice of social work first appears in a law-and-order context. In social work, the goal is to enhance people’s dignity and worthwhile also reinforcing their abilities and resources. Employees in a system regulated by punitive regulation may have some issues with these values of empowerment and empathy.

Social work values on mass incarceration

Like with racial health disparities, there is a wide range of theories about why minorities have a high probability of being arrested and imprisoned than their white colleagues. Racism and classism are two of the most common explanations for these racial differences (Cox, 2020). There is a strong belief that minorities are overrepresented in the criminal justice system because they are perceived to be the victims of racial discrimination in society. Those who believe that differences in criminal justice are caused more by socioeconomic status than by race are known as “proponents of the class hypothesis” (Cox, 2020). Poor people, in particular, cannot afford to negotiate the criminal justice system’s intricacies, and thus, they have worse outcomes.

Because of the high percentage of poverty in minority communities, they are more likely to be incarcerated than other groups. Cox (2020) argues that economists give a third argument, which they call statistical discrimination. This argument suggests that which appears to be overrepresentation may be due to the fact that criminal activity is racially distributed throughout the population. The reason for this is that criminality and a proclivity to commit crimes in the future may be connected to an identifiable trait of race.

There is a notion of social good centered on the well-being of individuals, communities, and humanity. Environmental justice, social inclusion and diversity, and sustainability, and harmony, world peace, and cooperation are all part of Mor Barak’s “three pillars” of social good (Mor Barak, 2018). The diversity and inclusion category of social goods and services includes the products and services that are offered to ensure that no hurdles stand in the way of people’s ability to engage fully in society as law-abiding, productive citizens. Everyone should have access to safe, clean, and healthful living environments through social goods and services that promote environmental justice and sustainability. Thirdly, commodities and services that promote peace, cooperation, and harmony help people live in interdependent and peaceful societies, without conflict between groups (Mor Barak, 2018). Even though these areas are distinct, they can nonetheless interact. Sustainability, environmental justice and harmony, collaboration, and peace can all benefit from social goods and services that increase diversity and inclusion.

It was during the 1960s that the civil rights movement was related to racial violence and criminality. There was an increase in the use of tough-on-crime color-blind strategies as a prominent issue in election campaigns, which allowed for the mass incarceration of predominantly Black men to be supported by future supporters of these policies (Hinton, 2017). Race and class play an essential role in the issue of mass incarceration, making it extremely complicated. A critical civil rights issue facing the modern-day is unquestionably the disproportionate imprisonment of minorities. It is also a crime that has far-reaching ramifications for families and communities.

Criminology and punishment, on the surface, appear to be simple subjects. After all, it is considered reasonable to expect those who participate in a crime to pay for their actions. Despite this, these are complex issues intrinsically linked to social justice and the socially beneficial idea of inclusiveness (Mor Barak, 2018). Cox (2020) argues that it is possible to regard the criminal justice system as a vehicle for maintaining America’s economic and social order, expanding and contracting as the economy changes. This system builds itself on the oppression of the black community and other oppressed populations, including Native Americans and illegal labor. The criminal justice system’s handling of socially complicated crimes such as those committed by African Americans and other minorities, some see it as an extension of the Jim Crow practices initially implemented in the 1850s.

To be sure, the combination of class, race, and gender can contribute to worse consequences when looking at mass incarceration from an intersectionality perspective. Poor individuals of any color have a high likelihood of being locked up, but the poverty rate among African Americans is higher (Zaw, Hamilton, & Darity, 2016). However, even when income is taken into account, racial disparities persist in the incarceration rates of Black males. Even though historically racially prejudiced social institutions have and continue to influence criminal justice system and social exclusion, not acknowledging this role has only led to a further increase in racial inequalities (Hernández, 2017).

If structural racism is not taken into account in crime and prison population discussions, racial differences in jails and prisons are seen as evidence of a claimed black monopoly on criminality. Even while black individuals make up a large percentage of those in the criminal justice system, they are not obligated to discuss or act on the racial imbalance (Cox, 2020). It is critical to recognize the importance of race and not assume that color-blind policies can address racial imbalances, even if this is not the case, to avoid perpetuating these discrepancies.


There seems to be a consensus among both the Democrats and Republicans that reform is necessary. Somehow, they have managed to shake off the effects of a protracted coma. So many other issues need to be addressed, including racial unfairness in the criminal justice system and recidivism, unemployment, and solitary imprisonment, and how individuals deprive violent offenders of their constitutional rights (Nott, 2016). 2014 was the first year in 33 years that the federal and state prison populations both decreased simultaneously. However, annual reductions of 1% or 2% will not suffice to address this issue. (Nott, 2016) argues that the country requires sweeping reforms to undo the enormous harm already done. For the abolition of mass incarceration, the government must acknowledge that millions of people wait every day for reform to take place.

Fighting for fairness is more crucial than ever in these divisive times. In addition, the public, leaders in both red and blue states, and local government actors, who provide nearly all of the nation’s justice, all agree on the necessity of reforming the criminal justice system (Cullen, 2016). Activists from various backgrounds are working together to keep the momentum of ending the failed system of mass incarceration alive and well. These behaviors and institutions can help to develop safe societies, are attentive to individuals, and uphold human dignity in the wake of the movement’s influence

The underproduction of social goods and services in diversity and social addition results in mass incarceration and the growing marginalization of the Black population. (Cox, 2020) argues that America is a racist country, and acknowledging this fact is the first step toward creating a genuinely inclusive community. Whites should make an effort to educate themselves about race to better their lot in life.

By eliminating prisons for low-level crimes, the criminal justice system can use another reform to advance the system. According to Cullen (2016), prison should not be the default punishment when someone commits a crime, which is often the case. In addition to being unjust, prison is a horrible punishment for society as a whole for low-level criminals like drug possession or petty theft. The majority of these offenses are frequently re-offended despite the prison cost for each prisoner being $31,000 a year (Cullen, 2016). It is cheaper and more suitable for probation, rehab, or community service for many low-level crimes. State legislators and the federal government should amend sentencing rules to punish lower-level crimes like drug possession and petty theft with alternatives to prison rather than incarceration.

Another alternative is to incorporate certain aspects of social work training into the curriculum for law enforcement officers. Social workers could also be hired by police agencies and prosecutors to assist them in their work (Lamin, Teboh, & Chamberlain, 2016). In either case, a more humane approach to tackling individual and community problems is essential because police officers and social workers typically deal with similar issues from the same impoverished populations.

When it comes to enacting legislation, politicians have always sought to benefit those who are least fortunate to benefit those who are most vulnerable, such as the black community. However, recent research shows that transferring funds from incarceration to minority community social programs to boost education, job skills, and employment would reduce wealth inequality and cut crime as much as measures to extend incarceration (Cox, 2020). At the macro-level, social workers can advocate for improvements in criminal justice legislation and funding for initiatives that improve economic equity, especially for society’s most vulnerable populations.

Social workers can advocate for reforms in the criminal justice and the restitution of voting rights at a mezzo level by working with local governments, institutions, and non-profit groups. For example, if prosecutors were required to assess the total costs of a conviction and penalty, not just to the offender but also to society, it would be an ideal notion for advocates to push for such legislation (Cox, 2020). It is only through this process that public prosecutors will have to take responsibility for the full social consequences of their decisions to seek various forms of retribution. Social work training and case managers can help prosecutors better comprehend the complicated factors that may have influenced a defendant’s decision-making. They may also benefit from providing a more holistic approach in dealing with those involved in the justice system’s criminal justice process.

It is a sad irony that the number of people harmed by severe and inadequate sanctions is one of the reasons people are starting to see a change in the country. At least one in three adults has a criminal history, and one in every two has a family member in prison (Barkow, 2020). Change occurs when so many people see how terribly the criminal justice system works firsthand. However, too many powerful forces have a stake in keeping things the way they are for any significant change to occur (Barkow, 2020). Law enforcement and prosecutors have fiercely fought reductions in prison sentences and other reforms that make their jobs more difficult. Prosecutors in New York are campaigning against a new law that would oblige them to disclose exculpatory information to defendants at the first stages of the process. They are trying to terrify the public into believing that this new law will lead to bloodshed, despite the fact that it is already implemented in Texas.


The issue of mass incarceration extends far beyond the issue of population size. Corrections officers and other experts who devote their time behind bars are devoted to improving their working circumstances in techniques that acknowledge inmates’ dignity and unlock their potential, providing better working conditions for those who work in prison or jail. Safeguarding inmates from sexual assault, ending the widespread use of solitary confinement, and bringing college back into prison are three of their top priorities in this area. These initiatives are proven to reduce recidivism and increase inmates’ chances of finding work and earning money upon release. After three decades, society has only just started thinking about the effects of mass incarceration if it is the only suitable punishment.


Barkow, R. (2020). Breaking the Cycle of Mass Incarceration | Brennan Center for Justice. Retrieved December 1, 2021, from

Cox, R. (2020). Applying the Theory of Social Good to Mass Incarceration and Civil Rights. Research on Social Work Practice30(2), 205–218.

Cullen, J. (2016). Four Things We Can Do to End Mass Incarceration | Brennan Center for Justice. Retrieved December 1, 2021, from

Duxbury, S. W. (2021). Fear or Loathing in the United States? Public Opinion and the Rise of Racial Disparity in Mass Incarceration, 1978–2015. Social Forces100(2), 427–453.

Hernández, K. L. (2017). City of inmates: Conquest, rebellion, and the rise of human caging in Los Angeles, 1771–1965. UNC Press Books.

Hinton, E. (2017). From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime. Harvard University Press.

Lamin, S. A., Teboh, C., & Chamberlain, J. M. (2016). Police social work and community policing, Cogent Social Sciences, 2: 1. DOI10(23311886.2016), 1212636. 11886.2016.1212636

Mor Barak, M. E. (2018). The Practice and Science of Social Good: Emerging Paths to Positive Social Impact: Https://Doi.Org/10.1177/104973151774560030(2), 139–150.

Nott, D. (2016). What is Mass Incarceration?. An overview of how the U.S. government… | by Daniel Nott | Medium. Retrieved December 1, 2021, from

Pettit, B., & Gutierrez, C. (2018). Mass Incarceration and Racial Inequality. American Journal of Economics and Sociology77(3–4), 1153–1182.

Sawyer, W., & Wagner, P. (2020). Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2020 | Prison Policy Initiative. Retrieved December 1, 2021, from

Surprenant, C. (2020). Professor Chris Surprenant on America’s Mass Incarceration Problem. Retrieved December 1, 2021, from

Zaw, K., Hamilton, D., & Darity, W. (2016). Race, Wealth and Incarceration: Results from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. Race and Social Problems8(1), 103–115.


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