Economic inequality to ineffective rehabilitation: 7 root causes of mass incarceration

Article written by
Laura Wilson
May 24, 2024

According to across the world, there are over 11.5 million people held in penal institutions.

Mass incarceration, which is particularly prevalent in the United States, has many factors that contribute to its existence and have complex roots.

Looking into the variety of factors including punitive culture, war on drugs, racial disparities and many other issues is extremely important so we can draw light to these and work on changes to help reduce these numbers.

Punitive culture

Prioritising punishment over rehabilitation within the criminal justice system continues the cycle of incarceration. By favouring punitive measures, such as harsh sentencing and mandatory minimums, the system neglects opportunities for meaningful intervention and support. Instead of offering avenues for individuals to break free from the cycle of crime, punitive measures further alienate them from society.

Consequently, rather than addressing the root causes of criminal behaviour and working towards meaningful rehabilitation and reintegration, the system reinforces punitive norms.

War on drugs

Initiated in the United States during the 1970s, a significant shift occurred regarding drug-related offences. One of the key mechanisms employed was the implementation of mandatory minimum sentencing laws. These laws dictated predetermined, often lengthy, prison terms for individuals convicted of drug offences, regardless of the specific circumstances of their cases.

As a result, non-violent drug offenders found themselves trapped in a system that prioritised punishment over rehabilitation. Instead of receiving treatment or support for underlying issues such as addiction, individuals were subjected to prolonged periods of incarceration.

Racial disparities

Biassed policing practices, including racial profiling and over-policing in minority communities, result in disproportionately high rates of arrest and prosecution for people of colour. Once within the system, these individuals encounter discriminatory sentencing practices, where sentences for similar offences are harsher compared to their white counterparts.

Additionally, the lack of access to quality legal representation further exacerbates the inequities faced by marginalised communities. Public defenders, often overwhelmed with caseloads and limited resources, may not be able to provide adequate defence, leading to higher conviction rates and longer sentences for people of colour.

Poverty and economic inequality

Socioeconomic factors, particularly poverty and economic inequality, play a significant role in the continuation of mass incarceration. The absence of adequate education and employment opportunities further worsens this cycle. Individuals in these communities face higher rates of unemployment and economic instability, increasing the likelihood of engaging in criminal activity.

Consequently, the rate of incarceration is higher in marginalised communities where poverty and economic inequality intersect with systemic barriers to opportunity. Addressing these issues is essential for breaking the cycle.

Policies and legislation

Tough-on-crime policies, embodied by measures like "three-strikes" laws and truth-in-sentencing laws, constituted a huge shift in the landscape of criminal justice. These policies were characterised by their stringent approach to sentencing and parole, aiming to deter criminal behaviour through harsh penalties and reduced opportunities for early release.

These policies contributed to a dramatic increase in the length of sentences imposed on individuals convicted of crimes, particularly non-violent offences.

Mental health and substance abuse

Limited access to mental health treatment and substance abuse programs has created a troubling trend where individuals grappling with these illnesses are frequently funnelled into the criminal justice system instead of receiving the care and support they desperately need. Once in the system, they are disproportionately likely to be incarcerated, as prisons have become de facto warehouses for individuals with mental illness or substance abuse disorders.

Instead of receiving treatment and rehabilitation, individuals are punished for their conditions, continuing a cycle of incarceration and exacerbating the challenges associated with mental illness and substance abuse.

Ineffective rehabilitation programs

Inadequate funding for rehabilitation and reintegration programs within prisons escalates the challenges faced by individuals reentering society after incarceration.

These programs, which aim to address underlying issues such as substance abuse, mental health disorders, and lack of education or job skills, are often underfunded or unavailable. This leaves many individuals released from prison without the tools and support needed to navigate the challenges of reentry, increasing their vulnerability to recidivism.

Without sufficient investment in these programs both within prisons and in the community, the cycle of incarceration and recidivism continues, undermining efforts to promote public safety and reduce the burden on the criminal justice system.

Addressing mass incarceration requires comprehensive reforms that address these root causes, including policy changes, mental health and substance abuse programs, and promoting rehabilitation programs. Focusing on these changes will help to reduce the number of people in penal facilities.

Many contributors to mass incarceration are part of the problem of prisoners' basic human rights not being met. Our vision is to end the dehumanisation of people in prison and build safer societies so to do this we need to face some of these challenges head-on to work towards rehumanising and reintegrating people who are in these facilities.

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