© 2022 WXPR
Mirror of the Northwoods. Window on the World.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Politics & Government

Call To Be "Tough On Drugs" Could Lead To Mass Incarceration


WASHINGTON - Citing an increase in gang related homicides, President Donald Trump and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions vow to return the nation to stiffer penalties for drug offenses. But an expert on mass incarceration says the nation has already seen its jail and prison populations triple in the last three decades.

Joshua Aiken is a policy fellow with the Prison Policy Initiative.A recent  report, "Era of Mass Expansion," cites an explosion in local jail populations - mostly people who can't afford to make bail or are jailed for minor offenses. "Seventy-five percent of Americans live in a state where the jail incarceration rate and the state prison incarceration rate have doubled," Aiken points out. "Mass incarceration has taken place in America because at every single level, we increased criminal penalties."

One of Sessions' first acts as attorney general was to rescind an Obama-era policy of telling federal prosecutors to avoid seeking mandatory minimum sentences in some drug cases. Aiken says the evidence shows that approach doesn't work, and when more people are held for minor offenses, they end up back in the system, doing prison time for more serious offenses. More than 2 million Americans are serving time behind bars. Aiken says some states that have taken a tough on crime approach are now seeing growth rates for their jailed populations larger than for their general populations.

"So, you are seeing it in the Dakotas, Montana, Colorado, New Mexico - you're seeing those states have incredible amounts of growth," he states. "Those are states that have been really impacted by income inequality, and high rates of poverty and joblessness."

Aiken points out that crime rates have dropped drastically in the last 35 years, but the incarceration rate keeps going up. He says taxpayers and lawmakers need to decide if money is being spent the right way. According to an Associated Press analysis, for the $75,000 it takes to jail a person for a year, he notes someone could go to Harvard for a year. "And especially when we are thinking about locking people up for small drug possession, when we could be investing in making sure that people stay out of the criminal justice system, are receiving the help that they need, oftentimes as it relates to mental illness, addiction or mental disabilities," he states.

Aiken adds some local sheriffs are driving up jail populations by renting out cells to state and federal authorities, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement. A bill pending in California (SB 630) would prohibit any county that uses State Public Works Board money to expand its prison space from leasing that space to any private or public entity for 10 years.

Related Content