At any moment, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, there are more than 2.3 million people in America’s 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 942 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,283 local jails, and 79 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, and prisons in the U.S. territories. In some parts of the country, there are more people in jail than at college.
One out of every three people who are locked up tonight are sitting in a local jail, not a state or federal prison. 11 million people cycle through them each year.:
Jail churn is particularly high because at any given moment most of the 722,000 people in local jails have not been convicted and are in jail because they are either too poor to make bail and are being held before trial, or because they’ve just been arrested and will make bail in the next few hours or days. The remainder of the people in jail — almost 300,000 — are serving time for minor offenses, generally misdemeanors with sentences under a year.
In California, there were 762,002 arrests for misdemeanors in 2014 alone. Of these, 92,469 were for drug possession, 1,265 for glue sniffing (a “crime” of the truly poor and desperate), and another 90,061 for being drunk in public. The largest single category, however, was driving under the influence, or DUI, with 151,416 arrests. That’s a total of almost 335,000 people arrested in one state in one year for crimes connected with the use of either legal or illegal drugs. Add to that the 58,569 people arrested for petty theft, imagine similar figures across the country, and you can see how the jails might begin to fill with record-setting numbers of prisoners.
There are almost 15,000 children behind bars whose “most serious offense” wasn’t anything that most people would consider a crime: almost 12,000 children are behind bars for “technical violations” of the requirements of their probation or parole, rather than for a new specific offense. More than 3,000 children are behind bars for “status” offenses, which are, as the U.S. Department of Justice explains: “behaviors that are not law violations for adults, such as running away, truancy, and incorrigibility.”4
Turning finally to the people who are locked up because of immigration-related issues, more than 22,000 are in federal prison for criminal convictions of violating federal immigration laws. A separate 34,000 are technically not in the criminal justice system but rather are detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), undergoing the process of deportation, and are physically confined in special immigration detention facilities or in one of hundreds of individual jails that contract with ICE.
At any given time, 80,000 to 100,000 inmates in state and federal prisons are held in “restrictive housing” (aka solitary confinement). And those numbers don’t even include county jails, deportation centers, and juvenile justice institutions. Rikers Island, New York City’s infamous jail complex in its East River, has 990 solitary cells. And keep in mind that solitary confinement -- being stuck in a six-by-nine or eight-by-10-foot cell for 23 or 24 hours a day -- is widely recognized as a form of psychosis-inducing torture.
The US imprisons the largest proportion of people in the world; or that, with 4% of the global population, it holds 22% of the world’s prisoners; these prisoners are disproportionately brown and black.
700,000 arrests on marijuana-related charges in 2014... Of that total, 88.4 percent -- or about 619,800 arrests -- were made for marijuana possession alone, a rate of about one arrest every 51 seconds over the entire year.
In a “stop-and-frisk” policy where police searched New Yorkers on the streets of their city five million times between 2002 and 2015. Nearly 90% of those stopped were, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union, “completely innocent” of anything and of the remaining 10%, only one-quarter, or 2.5% of all stops, resulted in convictions -- most often for marijuana possession. But hundreds of thousands of people, mostly young African American and Latino men, lived with the expectation that, at any time, the police might stop them on the street in a humiliating display of power. In a landmark 2013 decision, a New York federal court found the police department’s stop-and-frisk policy unconstitutional.
Portugal “decriminalized the use of all drugs” and decided to treat drug addiction as a public health problem rather than a criminal matter. The results? Portugal now has close to the lowest rate of drug-induced deaths in Europe -- three overdose deaths a year per million people. By comparison, at 45 deaths per million population, the United Kingdom’s rate is more than 14 times greater. In addition, HIV infections have also declined in Portugal, unlike, for example, in the rural United States where a heroin epidemic has the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention worried about the potential for skyrocketing infection rates.
The Pew Charitable Trusts wondered what would happen if states treated fewer thefts as felonies by raising the dollar cutoff for a felony prosecution. Pew asked: Would there be more minor theft because the penalties were lower? (Some state felony thresholds were, in fact, shockingly low. Until 2001, in Oklahoma, stealing anything worth more than $50 would throw you into that category. Even that state’s new limit, $500, is still on the low side.) The Pew researchers examined “crime trends in 23 states” that have raised the dollar threshold for felony theft and concluded that it had “no impact on overall property crime or larceny rates.” In fact, since 2007 property theft has been declining across the country, with no difference between states with higher and lower felony thresholds. So at least in the case of petty theft, threatening to send fewer people to state prison does not seem to raise the crime rate.
Even when never convicted, those arrested often end up spending time in jail because they can’t afford bail. And spending time in jail can cost you your job, your children, even your home. That’s a lot of punishment for someone who hasn’t been convicted of a crime.
The US does not have a justice system, it has a penal system. There exists a bedrock belief that America is the greatest country in the world and therefore has nothing to learn from other countries.