Is mass incarceration ethical? (by Alex Pistolesi)

[ By on May 15, 2017 ]

Currently, there are about 2.3 million people being held in the the American criminal justice system. Even more astonishing is the fact that people go to jail over 11 million times eachyear. It is fair to say that these are not the only people greatly affected by mass incarceration in the U.S., and those people’s families, friends, and communities must be taken into account. Even though crime rates have been dropping since the 1970’s, the prison population continues to grow. Not only is the current system that has led to mass incarceration unsustainable, but it is also inhumane. These are the two main reasons why it is unethical. According to Christian Henrichson and Ruth Delaney in their paper titled “What Incarceration Costs Taxpayers”, it costs $31,286 annually, or $85.72 per day, to incarcerate someone in state prison. These costs vary  depending on how crowded the jail is and several other factors. This price is very high compared to the average of $3.50 it would cost to have someone (who has yet to be even convicted) on probation supervision. A vast majority of this money is coming directly from the money of everyday people who pay their taxes. Is it just to force people to pay more than what they have to in order to be able to send people to jail for the slightest of infractions and for extended periods of times? The second main reason mass incarceration is unethical is because both the jails and justice systems in the U.S. can often be inhumane and unjust to not only prisoners but also to the previously mentioned groups of people. I always used to believe that the main goal of the prison system was to punish people who have committed crimes and that the punishment was supposed to fit the crime. The law system views a person’s sentencing time as their punishment, but does not take into account the conditions of the jails and the affects they have on the prisoners. It is also to be noted that an unbelievably disproportionate amount of people arrested and sent to jails are minorities. There has been proven to be a strong link between incarceration and social inequality in our country. This is not only due to certain laws such as “stop and frisk”, but also due to social issues such as the disparity in levels of education and income among different races. According to the sentencing project, black men born in 2001 have a lifetime likelihood of being imprisoned of 1 in 3. I don’t think that it is a coincidence that it is extremely disproportionate to the statistics for white people. This raises the question of if it is ethical that certain people are being put into jail and their lives are being negatively affected in a way that does not match a reasonable punishment for their wrongdoings

Graphics with statistics about mass incarceration

Katherine Russell: Is mass incarceration ethical?

Information on sociology of mass incarceration

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2 Comments on “Is mass incarceration ethical? (by Alex Pistolesi)”

  1. KNF

    Kelley Nicholson-Flynn

    [ May 16, 2017 at 4:33 pm ]

    Very interesting topic. One exploration that might be productive is to examine what we know about how various sentencing policies or other punishments affect deterrence, something that can be measured empirically.

  2. KNF

    Emily Schorr Lesnick

    [ May 17, 2017 at 1:15 pm ]

    Hello Alex, I am so intrigued that you are framing mass incarceration as a bioethical issue (perhaps also a public health crisis?). This is such an important issue and I appreciate your care to include additional sources for those seeking more information.
    I am always wary of the economic reasoning against mass incarceration, as I believe it both erases the larger questions of justice AND harkens back to chattel slavery with the equation of people and bodies to dollar signs. This connects to the missing factor of race and the overwhelming incarceration of Black and brown people. Had you more explicitly named race in this language of mass incarceration, I wonder how that might impact your bioethical questions.

Hi Stranger, reply with your thoughts:

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