Mass Incarceration Trends: Comprehensive Report from The Sentencing Project

Mass Incarceration

Mass Incarceration

By Leslie Acevedo and Michael McCutcheon

WASHINGTON, DCA report published by Dr. Ashley Nellis and The Sentencing Project last week revealed many of the “troubling trends” of mass incarceration.

Currently, according to the report, there are more than five million people that are under some kind of supervision by the criminal justice system, two million of which are living in a correctional facility. In the 1970s, that number was 360,000.

While there has been a marginal decline in the correctional population since 2010, prisons and jails remain over capacity and the adverse effects of mass incarceration are vast, said the author.

According to Dr. Nellis, these consequences include a lack of employment prospects, an inability to reliably obtain basic necessities such as food and housing, overreliance on public assistance, the lack of at least one parental figure for kids of incarcerated individuals which has been linked to declines in both academic performance and health, the dissolution of social bonds between community members which usually inhibit crime, and a deterioration of trust between the impacted communities and law enforcement.

Of course, it is not just the jail and prison populations that have expanded, the report notes. Since 1980, the parole population has quadrupled in size while the probation population has tripled. This is due, in part, to the increased duration of each program, subsequently requiring enrollment for longer periods.

In terms of the kinds of crimes committed, violent and drug crimes receive much of the attention.

Currently, 62 percent of inmates in state prisons have been convicted of a violent crime in comparison to only 30 percent back in 1970, the report said. It added that drug offenders, on the other hand, make up 47 percent of the federal prison population, which may run contrary to the popular belief that federal prisons are generally reserved for violent offenses.

Beginning in the 1970s, the “War on Drugs” and its policies, including mandatory minimum sentencing and three-strikes laws, induced an influx of offenders into the criminal justice system.

This influx only worsened in the mid-1980s, writes the author, with the passage of The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, which limited the discretion of federal judges. In 1986, this was followed by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which imposed mandatory minimums for drug offenders.

The report notes this included a five-year minimum sentence for the simple possession or sale of five grams of crack cocaine—a statute that is still hotly contested today, as the mandatory minimum for powder cocaine only kicked in at 500 grams (though that amount was decreased to 90 grams in 2010 with the Fair Sentencing Act).

The report points out the Anti-Drug Abuse Act disproportionately impacted African American/Black communities. Prior to its enactment, the average federal drug sentence for Blacks was 11 percent higher than whites. In 1990, four years after the act’s passage, it was 49 percent.

This disproportionate impact of and treatment by the criminal justice system extends past drug offenders, said the author, noting Black men are six times more likely than White men to be incarcerated, while Latino men are two-and-a-half times more likely.

Fewer than 6,000 women were in state or federal prisons in the beginning of the mass incarceration era, Nellis adds, noting this number has increased to 105,000 by 2015— “[m]ore than 17 times the 1970 level, followed by marginal but steady declines since.”

In 2021, statistics showed about 79,000 women imprisoned in state or federal prison.

“One in seven imprisoned people is serving a life sentence,” Nellis adds, showing the proliferating rates of life sentences. Historically, life sentences came with the expectation of being released: “Individuals were typically released in 10-15 years through parole or executive clemency.”

Although official statistics published in 1984 did not distinguish between life with parole and life without parole, they did show that 34,000 people were serving life sentences.

According to Nellis, in 1984 9,404 people were serving life without parole and 57,888 individuals had parole-eligible life sentences.

Throughout the early 2000s, “The number of people serving LWOP had more than tripled and parole eligible lifers had increased 62 percent,” said Nellis, adding, “Six times as many people were serving LWOP [life without parole], reaching an all-time high of 55,945; the total population of people serving LWP rose 82 percent over these years.”

Nellis adds, “Evidence shows that criminal careers are relatively short,” in the range of 10 years, showing continued incarceration wastes strategies that could be put towards effective crime prevention strategies. Furthermore, research among youth finds, “Brain development impacts behavior, and therefore punishments must accommodate this reality.”

Nellis highlights “The Rockefeller Drug Laws” (1973) which mandated 15 years for marijuana possession and other drugs, the first in a “Broad range of state-level mandatory sentencing schemes.”

Statistics suggest about one in five people in U.S. prisons, over 260,000 people, had “[a]lready served at least 10 years as of 2019,” an increase from 133.000 people in 2000, noted the report.

As African Americans are over-represented in the prison population, the disparity enlarges for those serving long sentences. 

Nellis adds, “Black Americans represented 14 percent of the total U.S. population,..33 percent of the total prison population, and 46 percent of the prison population who had already served at least 10 years.” 

Emphasizing the racial disparities, “Black Americans comprise 55 percent of those serving life without the possibility of parole, the most extreme life sentence,” said Nellis.

Nellis adds, “4.6 million Americans were unable to vote due to state laws restricting voting rights for those with felony convictions,” as of 2022.

Nellis said statistics suggest, “Among voting-age African Americans, 5.3 percent is disenfranchised compared to 1.5 percent of the adult non-African American population. Three out of four people disenfranchised are living in their communities, having fully completed their sentences or remain supervised while on probation or parole.” 

Children and youth, especially Black and Latinx children and youth, were described as dangerous due to policy makers adoption of the “super predator” theory over a concern in rising violent crime in the 1980s, the report explains.

The theory “[b]elieved that despite a young person’s age at the time of their offense, certain offenses should be handled in adult criminal court,” said Nellis, adding, policies were implemented which “[t]ransferred tens of thousands of young people as young as 13 years old into adult court, jail, and prison systems that, by design, do not account for age.”

It is now clear these policies did not meet expectations, charges Nellis, as “[h]olding youth in facilities with adults is associated with heighten physical and sexual abuse as well as higher rates of recidivism upon release. The number of youth in prisons and jails was steadily declining, amounting to an 83 percent drop overall by 2021.”

The Nellis report concluded, “Adopting major policy shifts in an emotional political climate is never a wise course of action” and “Revising how we think about people who commit crime changes how we respond to their actions.”


About The Author

Leslie Acevedo is a senior undergraduate student at California State University, Long Beach, majoring in Criminology/Criminal Justice. She intends to pursue a Master's Degree in Forensic Science or Criminal Justice. She aspires to become a forensic investigator.

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