Everything You Need to Know About Mass Incarceration

There are about 320 million people in the United States of America. Over 2 million of them are incarcerated, meaning for every 100,000 people, we incarcerate 719. More than half the world’s countries have incarceration rates of lower than 150 (per 100,000), but not the United States. Instead, we boast the highest incarceration rate in the world. Just let that sink in: Highest incarceration rate. In. The. World.

We lock up more people per capita than either China or India -- both countries with populations over 1 billion. The numbers speak for themselves.

No wonder the national conversation is turning to the topic of criminal justice. The questions of who’s profiting from prisons and prisoners, and where candidates stand on prison reform are hotbeds of discussion.

But let’s back up for a quick second, and answer basic questions about our penal system before we begin to address the intricacies of incarceration.

What does incarceration mean, exactly?

A quick Google search defines incarceration as “the state of being confined in prison; imprisonment.” As a verb, “to incarcerate” means “imprison or confine,” according to a cursory Google search.

So, to be incarcerated is to be imprisoned. Where do you go when this happens?

It depends on what you do, but in most cases, you’re sent to either prison or jail. The fundamental difference is in the length of stay.

Jail facilities typically hold inmates for shorter terms than prisons, generally a year or less. They are usually run by local law enforcement or local government agencies.

Misdemeanors get you sent to jail. Misdemeanors include petty theft, most DUI/DWI charges, vandalism, trespassing -- typically lesser crimes with lesser punishments.

Jails are also where inmates are housed prior to or during their time in court.

Prisons are designed for long-term incarceration. They are operated by either state governments (funded by state tax money), the Federal Bureau of Prisons (funded by the federal budget), or private prison corporations (contracted by either state or federal government). There are private prisons at both the state and federal level.

Generally, felonies send you to prison. Felonies are much more serious crimes with more serious punishments-- rape, murder, kidnapping, organized crime, fraud, major theft, and the like.

What determines whether you go to state or federal prison?

A federal crime will get you sent to federal prison, while a state crime will get you sent to state prison. According to the law firm Sumpter & Gonzalez, a federal crime is a violation of a statute passed by the United States Congress, and a state crime is a violation of a statute or ordinance passed by the state legislature or a local authority. Many crimes could be prosecuted in both state and federal courts.

Most examples of federal crimes involve the exchange of money or information. Tax evasion, extortion, embezzlement, and cyber crimes are all examples. That corrupt public official? He’s probably going to federal prison. Same with that dude who stole your identity. Also mobsters, inside traders, and spies.

Do you have to be convicted of a crime to be locked up?

No. You can be incarcerated without being guilty of anything.

The figure we use to tally incarcerated people--somewhere in the ballpark of 2.2 million-- includes the number of people in federal and state prisons, both public and private, and the number of people being held in local jails--about 730,000.

What’s special about the local jail population?

Some of the local jail population is made up of people who have already been found guilty and are serving short sentences, typically less than a year long. But local jails also serve as pretrial detention facilities.

What is pretrial detention?

Pretrial detention is the period of time you’re incarcerated before having a trial, and thus, before being found guilty or not guilty. You can be incarcerated in local jail without being convicted of anything. In fact, more than half of local jail inmates -- about 450,000 -- have not been convicted, and are just awaiting trial.

What about bail?

Of course, being arrested is not the same thing as being convicted, and not every one of those 450,000 is actually guilty of what they’ve been accused. If you are incarcerated prior to trial, it means a court did not offer you bail because it either deemed you a flight risk (you would flee before trial) or too dangerous to be released on bail (usually because you are being accused of a violent crime). In either case, race and class bias could play a role in a judge's decision.

However, many remain jailed because they are guilty of something else: being poor. Many who are in jail cannot afford to pay bail. Digging in to local jail populations provides us a snapshot of where poverty and the penal system intersect.

No one would choose incarceration if given a choice. Being locked up in any capacity is dehumanizing, scary, unpleasant, and even unsafe. For many accused people, bail is supposed to make that choice between freedom and incarceration an option. Our bail model seems to uphold one of the most sacred principles in criminal justice: “innocent until proven guilty.” But if you cannot afford bail, that’s not really the case. We should recognize that the presumption of innocence--and the freedom associated with it-- is a luxury. More like “innocent until proven guilty, if you can afford it.”

Jamie Fellner of the Human Rights Watch observed that “for people scrambling to pay the rent each month, finding $1,000 for bail can be as impossible as finding $1,000,000. Bail punishes the poor because they cannot afford to buy their pretrial freedom.”

If you can’t afford bail, you’re held in pretrial detention -- innocent or not. This can last weeks or longer, even for petty nonviolent crimes. As of late March, 400 Rikers Island inmates had been locked up for two years without being convicted of anything.

Why is this wrong?

Not only does this undermine the presumption of innocence, but, often, the chance of a fair trial. Sometimes, pleading guilty is the quickest way to guarantee release, so pretrial detainees may trade the nightmare of incarceration for the nightmare of living with a criminal record.

This is just another example of how basic rights come with price tags, where poverty is met with punitive measures.

What can I do?

Pretrial detention is on the rise, but striving for pretrial justice is important. Perhaps it’s time to widen our scope of criminal justice reform, and encourage our policy makers to examine all aspects of an unjust justice system. If you’re interested in making an impact, you can check out different ways to get involved in the fight for pretrial justice here.