Why did Rates of Incarceration Increase so Rapidly in the Second Half of the Twentieth

Why did Rates of Incarceration Increase so Rapidly in the Second Half of the Twentieth Century?


The US has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. While most countries use imprisonment as the dominant punishment for severe crimes, the rate of imprisonment in the US rose exponentially, particularly in the second half of the twentieth century (Zimring, 2010). The years between 1980-1999 alone saw a 280 percent rise in prison population, jumping from 329,821 inmates to 1,254,547 (Austin et al., 2000). During the same period, the rate of incarceration (number of people in state and federal prison a day per 100,000 population) also increased from 138 to 476 (Austin et al., 2000). In comparison with other countries such as Russia, Cuba, and Kazakhstan, American prison population outstrips these countries. Shocking is that while America homes only a twentieth of the world population, it holds close to a quarter of the world’s inmates (Bibas, 2015). Although the number of inmates increased exponentially between 1980 and 1999, the US started witnessing it  since the mid-1970s (Bibas, 2015). Criminologists have argued that the increase in the rate of incarceration in the US legal system had a number of contributory factors. Among  them was the “War on Drugs”, changing policy on judges and parole board discretion on sentencing as well as rising rates of crime (particularly in the 70s and 80s). In looking at the underlying reason for the rise in incarceration rates in the second half of the twentieth century, this paper will explore the historic trends in criminal justice policy and incarceration, factors behind the rise of incarceration rates, consequences and possible solutions.

History of Criminal Justice Policy

The better part of the first half of the twentieth century saw policies governing justice and correction in the U.S. following the indeterminate sentencing paradigm (Neal & Rick, 2013). The paradigm afforded judges freedom in deciding the sentences accorded to each criminal. The freedom gave them (judges) discretion over sentences in relation to the crimes committed. According to Neal and Rick (2013), the judges “enjoyed great discretion when deciding whether to sentence convicted offenders to probation or prison, and they enjoyed similar discretion when deciding the sentences for those who enter prison” (p. 5). In addition, parole boards also enjoyed similar discretion and control over the time spent by the inmates in relation to the sentences passed by the judges (Neal & Rick, 2013).

The discretionary pattern of the indeterminate paradigm was such that judges and parole boards enjoyed freedom of sentence/punishment customization in relation to offenders rather than as a match to the offenses committed. Under the paradigm, the two (judges and parole boards) had the freedom of considering the possibilities of rehabilitation, provision of incentive for good behavior and self-improvement, in addition to the anticipated impacts on the safety of the public during decision-making for determination of punishment for the different offenders (Neal & Rick, 2013). The free reign for the judges and parole boards meant that they had the power to reduce or prolong sentences based on their judgment of the individual and evidence presented, with little regard to the guidelines concerning punishment in relation to the offenses committed.

The paradigm, however, came under attack from different activists with diverse persuasions. On the one side, activists argued that the indeterminate paradigm accorded judges and parole officials free reign, allowing them (judges and parole officials) to treat their racial bigotries in determining sentences (Neal & Rick, 2013). On the other side, activists argued that indeterminacy permitted compassionate judges and parole boards to put public safety at risk by putting dangerous criminals back on the streets earlier than the law intended (Raphael & Stoll, 2013; Stemen & Rengifo, 2011).

The result of the outcry was a shift in the paradigm, through the elimination of the indeterminacy model. In addition, the late 1970s saw changes in the legal system, which then moved justice and correction policies away from indeterminacy towards a more structured determinate sentencing model (Neal & Rick, 2013; Raphael & Stoll, 2013; Stemen & Rengifo, 2011). Thus, by introducing the policy changes, states such as Indiana, Maine, Illinois, and California essentially curtailed or eliminated discretionary releases by parole boards. The elimination of indeterminacy powers of the parole boards was one of the policy reforms which included the establishment of sentencing commissions. The latter were responsible for developing sentencing guidelines constraining sentencing decisions by judges (Neal & Rick, 2013; Raphael & Stoll, 2013; Stemen & Rengifo, 2011).

Trends in Incarceration

The changes in the indeterminacy policy had great influence on the incarceration trends in prisons across the nation. The changes’ rippling effects cut across correction facilities and justice systems in the nation thus ushering a new era in incarceration trends. In looking at the incarceration trends after the introduction of the new polices, however, it is important to remember that determining the trends can be complex given the different ways of gaining admission into prison (Austin et al., 2000). Additionally, there are many other factors in play while determining the length of time spent by the inmate in prison. Many forms of community correctional supervision further aggravates the complexity of the prison population.

To be clear on the incarceration system, it is important to remember that inmates can get into the prison system either as newly sentenced inmates or as parole/probation violators, and therefore have their supervision status withdrawn (Austin et al., 2000). However, despite the distinction, the second half of the twentieth century saw an increase in the number of prison admissions with most of the new inmates serving sentences related to drugs and drug crimes (Blumstein & Allen, 1999). Aside from the drug-related inmates, there were a growing number of people admitted for failure of completion of their parole or probation terms (Austin et al., 2000).

Data on national incarceration trends showed that of the 541,000 incarcerations in 1997, close to 40 percent (215,000) were parole violators (Austin et al., 2000). About half of the parole violators were re-incarcerated following one or more technical parole violations, while the remaining were caught in new felony convictions (Austin et al., 2000). Most of the times, technical violators return to prison for violations one customarily never gets a prison sentence for.

Another trend during the period was the length of stay (LOS) in prison following conviction. According to Austin et al. (2000), during the second half of the twentieth century, there was acceleration in the length of stay in prisons following the passage of the “truth in sentencing” policies. The policy required that prisoners spend the bulk (at least 85 percent) of their sentences in prison, leading to an increase in the number of inmates in one facility at  one time (Blumstein & Allen, 1999). With the introduction of the truth in sentencing policy, Austin et al. (2000) inform that the average length of prison stay for a prisoner increased to over 40 months during the second half of the twentieth century. Noteworthy is that the policy has had spillover effects even into the twenty-first century (Raphael & Stoll, 2013). Another contributing factor to the longer stay in prison, and therefore increased prison population were the restrictions set on parole boards in granting parole. Thus, while most states in the US retained the indeterminate sentencing and discretionary release paradigm powers for most offenders, polices required them to be more restrictive in granting parole (DoJ, 1998). Therefore, despites retention of discretionary release powers, the boards had restrictions on individuals they could grant parole or probation, especially given the high number of parole violators.

Factors for Rise in Incarceration Rates

A confluence of different factors led to the increased incarceration rate at the fall of the twentieth century. The factors had political, social and economic underpinnings, with authorities pushing for them seeing them as the possible solutions to the increasing rates of crime, particularly in the inner cities following the second great migration. For the authorities therefore, arresting the rising rate of crimes, proliferation of controlled drugs and social ills meant sterner laws on dealing with criminals, a move that ultimately increased incarceration rates.

One of the major reasons for increased incarceration in the second half of the twentieth century was the “War on Drugs” –  a move that saw tough measures and rules passed for drug offenders and any drug-related crime. The “War on Drugs” was a political move, where the politicians saws addicts and pushers as responsible for the increased rates of crime across the nation, particularly the inner-city neighborhoods where blacks were the majority. The politicians considered drugs as also responsible for the erosion of urban infrastructure and proliferation of social and economic distress (Travis, Western & Redburn, 2014).

On the background of increased crime rates, largely due to the second great migration that Blacks and Hispanics  to the inner cities, President Nixon declared “War on Drugs” in 1971 (Travis, Western & Redburn, 2014). Before this declaration, the president had embraced a policy towards  investment in treatment, rehabilitation, and public health as measures towards combating substance abuse that had become a widespread. With the declaration, the measure became standard for leaders across the political divide. Governor Rockefeller of New York led in enacting some of the toughest laws on drugs mandating steep minimum sentences for trade and use of drugs, particularly heroin and cocaine (Travis, Western & Redburn, 2014). The enactment of the new laws in New York had rippling effects prompting other states to seek the enactment of tough prolonged sentences for any drug offenses.

Many Black leaders and r poor inner city residents welcomed the new tough measures on drugs. Moreover, many more people in New York and other states demanded more severe laws to address the proliferation of drugs and the rising rates of crime including the then common open-air drug market (Travis, Western & Redburn, 2014). The calls by people for action on the scourge of drugs prompted the enactment of tough drug laws in 1986 and 1988. Consequently, the new laws resulted in high rates of incarceration for drug use and possession (Austin et al., 2000; Neal & Rick, 2013; Raphael & Stoll, 2013; Stemen & Rengifo, 2011). In addition, the number of people convicted of drug-related offense escalated exponentially. By 1997, drug-related offense convictions had grown to make up thereabouts of one-fifth of state prison inmates and more than two-thirds of all federal prisoners (Travis, Western & Redburn, 2014). Therefore, with an acceptance of the drug problem, both Republican and Democratic governments enacted laws that adopted harsh sentences for drug offenses and essentially increasing the prison population between 1970s and 1990s. The prison population in the US additionally grew as the criminal justice system and policy leaned towards the increased use of incarceration as a measure in dealing with crime, particularly drug sale and use.

Aside from the “War on Drugs”, increased rates of incarceration in the years toward the end of the twentieth century had increased women incarceration as an added factor. Austin et al. (2000) inform that between 1980 and 1999, female incarceration increased by 576 percent. Although the rates of imprisonment in males’ state and federal facilities was more than 15 times that of women, the increase in the number of females in the correctional facilities outstripped males’ increase between 1980 and 1999 (Austin et al., 2000). It should be noted that the “War on Drugs” is especially responsible for this outcome for women.

Austin et al. (2000) and DoJ (1999) inform that the proportion of women convicted of violent crimes between 1979 and 1997 decreased significantly from about half of the total number of incarcerated females in 1979 to only 28 percent in 1997. Moreover, poverty and servitude are also to blame for the increase in the number of women incarcerated given that the women involved in drugs were from either third world countries or impoverished neighborhoods within the US. These women were then coerced or led into drug couriers or mules (Austin et al., 2000; Chesney-Lind, 1997). Aside from using or selling drugs, the “War on Drugs” consequences, and therefore arresting of the women by association to a drug dealer increased the number of women incarceration. Living with a drug dealer, regardless of the woman’s knowledge, was enough reason to implicate the woman. In addition, given the women’s economic dependence on the drug dealers, they became increasingly at risk of incarceration. Chesney-Lind (1997) contends that the “War on Drugs” then became a war on women, directly contributing to the explosion of the prison population of women.

Essentially, the “War on Drugs” was one among the tough policies adopted by the federal and states governments in the second half of the twentieth century. Along with the tough policies, there were sentencing reforms which increased incarceration rates for both men and women. Early 60s through to the 70s and 80s saw increased rates of violent crimes. Many politicians, in response to the increased violent crimes, consequently based their campaigns on acting tough on crime. Additionally, there was general public outcry on the duration of violent criminals’ sentences. The public felt that the offenders were spending trivial sentences in prison and returning to the community to continue with their violent activities (Austin et al., 2000). The outcry was in line with the indeterminacy paradigm that accorded judges and parole boards free reign on sentences. Politicians, as a result, heeded to the public outcry through sentencing reforms including structured sentencing, mandatory sentences, truth in sentencing, and the “three strikes” as means of deterrence and incapacitation of the criminals.


Increased incarceration had far-reaching consequences on the inmates, their families and the entire American society. First among the consequences was the state of the prisons and the inmates following the tough measures on incarceration. Austin et al., (2000) inform that with the new measures most prisons became overcrowded. As a result the inmates only found housing in areas designed for program and recreational use. In addition, overcrowding is specifically a breeding ground for other ills in the prison system, including prison violence and mental and physical health constrains. Consequently, overcrowding ideally defeated the purpose of incarceration as a measure for individual correction given the absence of educational, mental health, vocational, and medical treatment services.  It prevented prisoners from exercising indoor activities, participating in education and vocational training, as well as counseling and other pre-release programs. The absence of these programs meant that even after the release, convicts would not have acquired any skills that would help them adjust to the outside world, thereby increasing the chances of relapse into crime and drug abuse (Travis, Western & Redburn, 2014).

Essentially, increased incarceration meant that prisons became dens of all sorts of abuses. Austin et al. (2000) inform that due to overcrowding there are many forms of abuses including rape and sexual abuse as well as physical abuse. In women’s prisons, inmates were forced to have sex with guards, officers, maintenance workers and even the chaplain (Austin et al., 2000). Many of these women became pregnant and abortions were forced on them. Physical abuse was also a norm where prisoners in restraints became objects of abuse for the guards. Moreover, many guards kicked, burned, and hit prisoners with batons. Some bashed the heads of the prisoners, while in other cases prisoners died in the hands of guards and fellow inmates while undergoing torture.

Many of the convicted people are cut out from the wider society. According to Travis, Western & Redburn (2014) there is a lot of political disenfranchisement as many people from poor and minority communities found exclusion from key aspects of civic and political life. Imprisonment means that convicts cannot vote, and therefore have no say in the political governance of the country. Aside from political and economic disenfranchisement, increased incarceration cost the country billions of dollars for the maintenance, running, and expanding the correction facilities. According to Neal and Rick (2013), the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (1994) established the Truth-in-Sentencing Incentive Grant Program, “which provided grants for prison construction and expansion to states that adopted policies requiring sentenced offenders to serve large portions of their sentences” (p. 6).


There is need to return to the previous policy of incarceration for the purpose of rehabilitation as was the case in the first half of the twentieth century. The current policy of deterrence and retribution does nothing other than procrastinate violent crime by keeping violent criminals in custody. A policy of rehabilitation will have far-reaching results, especially at the time of reentry into the wider society. Moreover, there is need to review the incarceration policies to desist from the current blanket sentencing of individuals due to fear of crime and give sentences in relation to the crime committed. A case-by-case analysis of crime committed is a far more satisfying and fair justice system instead of convictions based on racial bigotry, homophobia, and vindictiveness.


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