Why are so many Americans in jail? That is a very simple-sounding question yet it seemingly does not have a correct answer, which is to say that there are a great many answers but one cannot tell which among them are correct. One fact does stand out: if you are an American, you are much more likely to be in jail than if you live almost any other place in the world. Please click on the thumbnail further down the page to see how Americans compare.
There are clues, of course. For example, about two-thirds of those people are in jail for doing non-violent things, such as abusing drugs. For another, the vast majority of those in prison are minorities, mainly black or Hispanic. From those two clues alone, a river of answers emerge, not all of which can be correct.
One popular answer is that the American penchant for treating drug use as a crime is the reason, and that the reason so many blacks and Hispanics are in jail is because they lack normal job opportunities and therefore turn to drug selling and usage as a way to make a buck and comfort themselves. There is something very stereotypical about this answer, but it seems that probably parts of it ring true.
Another popular answer is that blacks and Hispanics are just more prone to criminal behavior of all kinds than are white citizens. This specious theory is bolstered by the non-white prison majority is about equally spread across both the violent and the non-violent sectors of crime. When you dig down into this worldwide, though, it seems not to hold water at all, and it certainly is not supported by my own experience or any scientific study that I know of.
One thing is very apparent: there are a lot more poor Americans in jail than there are rich Americans. This clue also accounts for the white / non-white prison population disparity, since there are a lot more poor blacks and Hispanics in America than there are rich ones. Conversely, the majority of whites in prison are relatively poor whites. This would seem to make color less important than socio-economics in figuring out who is probably going to jail.
In fact, we can oversimplify a little bit and say that most of the people in American prisons, probably two-thirds, are poor drug users. If all of those poor drug users were not in jail, we would only have about the same percentage of people in jail as Iran or Mexico. Wait a minute, you say, those are horrible places compared to the United States. Well, maybe in some ways, but not in terms of violence.
Americans are very violent people. We kill, rape, rob, wound, maim, fight, and assault at a rate many times that of the rest of the world. Again, there are many possible answers. Violent video games probably plays a part. The Hip-Hop culture (which is not very cultured at all) probably plays a part. All of the drinking and drugging probably plays a part. The easy availability of weapons probably plays a part. The violence of our entertainment media probably plays a part. Basically, almost everything children see while growing up tends to make them more violent.
So I suppose what we need to do to solve this problem is to quit making people poor and violent. I have never heard it put that way before, but I am very sure that it would work.
Instead of making it a priority to put people in jail for long periods, like the white upper and middle classes have been doing for years, direct all of that energy towards giving all people a chance at good education, good jobs, and the good life.
Instead of directing all that money and effort to have a War on Drugs (boy, rich Conservatives love their wars!) lets take all of that and try to make America a place where there is more to look forward to than drugs.
Instead of promoting weapons and violence as a way of life, try promoting human dignity in all those commercials and other social messages and images.
I have a feeling if we would just do those three things, and the others that naturally follow from them, our prisons would empty out in a generation.