Mass incarceration continues to generate enormous economic, social, and political problems, making it one of the most urgent challenges facing the United States today. The US has the largest prison population in the world, incarcerating a higher percentage of citizens than any other country. Over the last four decades, the US has witnessed a 500% increase in its incarceration rate, putting more than 2.2 million people are behind bars, the most in the world, according to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The dramatic increase in incarceration rate, however, cannot be explained by changes in crime rate, which have fallen steadily over the past decades. Despite research proving that prison sentences are ineffective in decreasing crime rate, the incarceration continues to rise.
Besides its adverse effects on prisoners, mass incarceration damages the entire American social system. It exerts long-lasting adverse effects on families and communities, contributing to problems like declining public health, rising poverty, and widespread unemployment, just to name a few. Incarcerated individuals also face physical and psychological challenges: they are vulnerable to mental health disorders and physical ailments. To make matters worse, overcrowded prisons conditions limit health services and rehabilitative assistance, raising massive public health concerns. Families of prisoners suffer from collateral damages. Children are derailed when their parents are sent to prison, and two-person households undergo economic hardship when one is sent to prison. Moreover, when the incarcerated person is released, s/he faces tremendous difficulty finding a job.
These consequences are even worse for underprivileged communities. Socioeconomic costs of mass incarceration are disproportionately borne by disadvantaged groups, in particular the poor and people of color, making it even harder for minority groups to climb the socioeconomic ladder and reducing recidivism. Altogether, mass incarceration splinters already fragile families, puts enormous financial burdens on society, and brings about irreversible social consequences. Changes in policies and court orders are urgently needed to curb the increasing rate of incarceration.
Given the ineffectiveness of mass incarceration and its high social costs, the United States needs to enact sweeping reforms. Take Germany as an example. Germany’s incarceration rate is 10% of that of the U.S. According to a study done by VERA Institute of Justice, 79% of German punishments are fines, while only 15% include incarceration, compared to 70% in the U.S. And the low rate of incarceration in Germany has not sacrificed public safety.
One of the most effective approaches they employ is a day-fine system in lieu of short-term imprisonment. The day-fine is based on the severity of offense and the offender’s income. In this way, the fine has the same relative impact on offenders facing the same charge. If the lump sum cannot be paid immediately, the court may allow installment payments. When this rule is enforced, an offender’s property and wages can be garnished. Convicted individuals can also choose to work for social programs, offer community services, or serve in jail if they cannot afford the fines. They are not given a prerogative to serve the sentence in prison rather than pay the fines. Overall, the introduction of day-fines has reduced Germany’s reliance on incarceration, created equality by issuing monetary sanctions, and has deterred crime and maintained public safety.
Learning from Germany’s case, the U.S. can incorporate the day-fine system to reduce custodial sentences. Although it is impossible to have a day-fine penalty system akin to Germany’s overnight, the U.S. can start adopting this system on a smaller scale, in local and state government, and gradually build its credibility in criminal justice community. By diverting criminals from imprisonment, mass incarceration could therefore be curbed. A reduction in incarceration rate could help eliminate the root of many public concerns, including health, poverty, employment, and racial bias.
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