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A Culture of Despair

A Collaboration between Unis Human Rights Project & Proof: Media for Social Justice

Over 40 years ago, the U.S. embarked on an unprecedented experiment in punishment. Today, it holds over 2 million people, disproportionately people of color, behind bars;  the equivalent of  431 people per 100,000 residents. Mass incarceration began partly in reaction to a spike in crime, but expanded even after crime began to decline. Other Western countries also saw crime increase, but chose to respond in a less retributive manner. Today, the median rate of incarceration for European countries is 81 per 100,000 residents and rates of violence and homicide are much lower than in the U.S.

While the “tough on crime” rhetoric may have helped politicians get elected, studies have been unable to establish a strong correlation between incarceration and crime rates. A growing body of evidence shows that at best, mass incarceration played only a modest role in reducing crime. Today, crime rates in the U.S. are at a historic low but increased incarceration has little to no effect on crime. Between 75 to 100% of the reduction in crime can be attributed to factors other than incarceration. Possible theories that explain the reduction in crime include: the liberalization of abortion laws, decreased lead poisoning, an aging population, an improving economy, an increase in immigration, declines in alcohol consumption, social control technologies and the role of social programs and community-based organizations, according to sociologist Patrick Sharkey, author of Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence. 

[Mass incarceration has] created a culture of despair and hopelessness that actually feeds violence and criminality.
Bryan Stevenson, Author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

Several studies have even shown that incarceration itself is a risk factor for crime and violence, and that the more time a person spends in prison, the greater their chances of reoffending. A 2018 update on prisoner recidivism, which tracked close to a half a million released prisoners in 30 states between  2005 and 2014, found that 68% of released state prisoners were arrested within three years, 79% within six years and 83% (five out of six) within nine years.


Chapter 14 — Question 01

Today, crime rates in the U.S. are at a 20 year historic high.

Correct! Wrong!

They are actually at a 20-year historic low (with some exceptions of certain cities) but studies have been unable to establish a strong link between increased incarceration and falling crime. In New York City, in the past ten years, serious crime decreased 58%, while the incarceration rate declined 55%.

Chapter 14 — Question 01


Formerly Incarcerated Person

I had never been to jail so I didn’t really know what was going on but something inside was telling that this can’t be right. I was in there with women who were doing twenty years for driving offenses. I’ve never met so many good women in my life. The experience inside opened my mind too. I had always envisioned people in jail as dingy, crazy people, but they are just regular people who did something minor. We all make mistakes and just because we make a mistake, it does not mean that we should be locked away for the rest of our lives, or for any amount of time. Prison is supposed to rehabilitate and it does not do that at all.

Continue to

Chapter Fifteen