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America Heading Toward Police State? Over 30% of USA's Younger Population Experiencing Jail or Prison

Updated on February 12, 2019
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Lyndon Henry is a writer, journalist, editor, and writing-editing consultant. Follow him on Twitter: @LHenry_rch

Is the USA creeping toward becoming a full-fledged police state? Before you dismiss this as a crackpot notion, or shake your head, and say "It can't happen here" ... here's some evidence to consider.

For example, in my article Is Big Brother Watching? You Can Probably Count on It... I have focused on how both government and private entities have revved up efforts to spy on and track the American population — and in a good many cases, public and private authorities are cooperating with one another in this Orwellian crusade.

Now, another indicator has emerged, suggesting just how many young people, one way or another, are ending up in jail or prison. This issue was highlighted several years ago in a New York Times article (19 December 2011) by Erica Goode, who reported that "By age 23, almost a third of Americans have been arrested for a crime ...." This conclusion has been based on a study led by Robert Brame, a professor of Criminal Justice and Criminology at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, and summarized in a December 2011 article in the journal Pediatrics.

Analyzing the arrest histories of a nationwide sampling of both adolescents and young adults over a range of time, Dr. Brame's investigation found that some 30.2% of 23-year-olds that participated in the study indicated they'd been arrested for an offense other than a minor traffic violation. In the assessment of some researchers, according to the Times article, this high incarceration rate "is a measure of growing exposure to the criminal justice system in everyday life." More alarming, the 30.2% rate is significantly higher than the 22% found in a previous study over a half-century ago, in 1965.

To think that more than one out of five young people has been in jail or prison is fairly staggering ... but to realize that it's now increased to nearly one in three, should cause us all to stop and consider. As discussed below, a complex of factors (including, in many cases, the expansion of both laws and the severity of punishment applying to certain non-violent activities) may be involved in this phenomenon.

These concerns don't mean to imply that a society should not have some way of dealing effectively with sociopaths, whether youths or adults, or anyone that engages in socially destructive behavior. However, as also discussed below, in observing the kind of society that is emerging in the USA, it's worth examining the basic causes for these kinds of problems, and also whether alternative approaches — such as scrutinizing the validity of some repressive measures (like the so-called "War on Drugs"), pursuing effective, bona fide rehabilitation for offenders, and even overhauling society itself — might point to a way to a far better, safer, and more liberated kind of society.


How incarceration "breeds" more criminals

However, over the past several decades, the prevailing trend in criminal "justice" policy has marched in the opposite direction — disparaging rehabilitation, and ratcheting up the harshness of punishment. But is this really smart policy?

Widespread research evidence suggests that, for young people incarcerated for any appreciable time, the prison, jail, or detention center environment (with the opportunity to mix with more hardened criminals) itself tends to inflict harm and serve as a breeding culture or assembly line for schooling young people in criminal methods and lifestyles. In their 2006 book The Dangers of Detention: The Impact of Incarcerating Youth in Detention and Other Secure Facilities Barry Holman and Jason Ziedenberg conclude that juvenile detention facilities frequently are overcrowded and understaffed. They cite as a particularly egregious example a center in Maryland, which managed to crowd 100 young men into cottages officially allowed to have a maximum capacity of only 24 — and with only three to four adults supervising the situation.

According to Mark Soler, in his 2001 book Public Opinion on Youth, Crime and Race: A Guide for Advocates, young people that find themselves in such environments are vulnerable to violent brutality from their peers as well as from staff members, who are themselves described as "often overworked, underpaid and under stress." This violence that incarcerated young people are subject to — ranging from fights and stabbings to rapes — is commonly recognized by criminal justice system employees, as well as critics and opponents of the system. (One could infer from this that such violence may also tend to inculcate and intensify ever more violent behavior, as "violence begets violence".)

And the "breeding culture" effect is also widely documented. For example, in a 1999 study titled “When interventions Harm: Peer groups and Problem Behavior”, published in the journal American Psychologist, T.J., Dishion and his colleagues found that congregating "delinquent youth" has an adverse impact on their behavior — they found "it actually serves to make them more deviant and more of a threat to themselves and others", a process identified by some social scientists as “peer delinquency training”. Young offenders imprisoned in such "congregated" settings have been found to exhibit significantly higher levels of delinquency, difficulties in school, violence, substance abuse, and eventual adjustment difficulties in adulthood, in comparison with youths that were provided treatment in different settings.

Real roots of crime

Undoubtedly, the predominant breeding conditions for crime can be found in America's decaying economic and social fabric — the steady spread of poverty, the loss of job opportunities, the deterioration of much of the public educational system in America's cities, among other factors. In a 2006 statement (posted on the U.S. House of Representatives website) contrasting the declining conditions in the USA with the U.S. government's investment in Iraq, U.S. Representative Charles Rangel of New York City noted that

In major inner cities such as New York unemployment among Black and Hispanic young men is at crisis levels of 50 percent or more. U.S. prisons are filled with our own hopeless and "angry young men" who might never have been locked up if they had been employed, or at least, employable.

Rep. Rangel deplored a federal administration that was "consumed with terrorism and the war in Iraq, while here at home, poverty, unemployment, crime, and the hopelessness that results, are the gravest homegrown threats to our national security." (This very different spin on "national security" is worth noting.)

"In 2006," he pointed out, "one out of three of New York City's children were living in poverty (54 percent for female headed single parent families). With barely 50 percent of the city's Black men holding jobs in 2003, unemployment (and incarceration in many cases) were the main reasons for the father's absence."

Of the 2.2 million Americans locked up in federal, state and local prisons in the U.S. 40 percent are Black. In some large cities such as Baltimore, where the schools are failing and poverty is rampant, more than 50 percent of the young Black men are in prison, on parole or probation. Unlike Iraq, religion is not a cause of their anger. Poverty, ignorance and hopelessness are.

"Lock 'em up" approach making us less safe

As of 2009, the total number of adults in the USA either in jail or prison, or on probation or parole, amounted to more than 7.2 million — 3.1% of America's resident population. According to Human Rights Watch, "the extraordinary rate of incarceration in the United States wreaks havoc on individuals, families and communities, and saps the strength of the nation as a whole." Whose "strength" is being "sapped" in a severely fractious nation, deeply divided by income inequality, is dubious, but this staggering number of people ensnared one way or another in the criminal justice system certainly must be having a deleterious impact on family life as well as the social and economic fabric.

This is particularly troubling when you realize that the USA has "the highest documented incarceration rate in the world", according to Wikipedia — followed by Russia and then Rwanda. Currently the population of inmates incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails totals about 2.3 million.

One of the major causes of such high incarceration rates is the extraordinary length of prison sentences in the USA, which dispenses far longer sentences than any other country on earth. Thus, says Wikipedia, "Even though other countries have more prisoners annually, the fact that the United States keeps their prisoners longer causes the total rate to become higher."

Many analysts also ascribe these trends to the gradual ratcheting-up of restrictions and laws within the USA — in other words, the more things you make illegal, the wider the net you cast, and the more people you'll find violating the new restrictions. In addition, criminal penalties for some infractions (such as drug-law violations) have been significantly increased over the past several decades. Indeed, reports Wikipedia, "One of the biggest contributors to the United States' spike is the war on drugs."

Further reinforcing this criticism, Wikipedia notes that America incarcerates a large number of non-violent and "victimless" offenders. Approximately 50% of all individuals incarcerated under state jurisdiction are imprisoned for non-violent offenses, and, in state prisons, 20% are incarcerated for drug offenses (in federal institutions, the percentages are even higher).

To be sure, some extremely unsavory, vicious, even bloodthirsty characters are engendered, under the conditions of modern American society, and manage to roam free, preying on an overwhelmingly innocent and well-intentioned population that does its best to abide by the prescribed rules. (Those of us that have been crime victims know this, and, if you haven't been directly impacted, watching just a few of the chilling crime stories featured on network TV news programs like NBC's Dateline and CBS's 48 Hours should provide a sobering reality check.)

Many fairly stern law-and-order enthusiasts might argue that the increased rate of incarceration is a small price to pay for a safer lifestyle. But actually, over the past several decades, America hasn't gotten safer — it's gotten less safe, if you gauge this by the crime rate. The US violent crime rate increased by more than 150% over the 50-year period 1960-2010 (Wikipedia). America's homicide rate remains among the highest in the industrialized world.

Moreover, even if you applaud widening the net of criminal offenses, and the tougher sentencing laws, scooping up ever-larger segments of the population into jail or prison ought to give you at least some pause. Cycling more and more people — especially youths and young adults — through the criminal justice system would not seem to bode well for modern society, no matter who's actually at fault, or what the root cause is.


"Police State Creep"?

So, returning to the initial issue ... does this suggest America is becoming a police state? Certainly, a growing prison population (and even the huge proportion of young people ending up behind prison walls) doesn't itself suddenly define America as a police state. But when you combine that with signs of an increasingly regulated and regimented society — the gradual tightening of restrictions (on public protests, for example) and the imposition of increasingly intrusive laws (like the so-called Patriot Act) — the picture of the society that is emerging tends to give many Americans cause for concern.

Some have started calling it "Police State Creep" — a sinister slipping and sliding into police-state characteristics. In any case ... this confluence of developments tends to suggest that something seems to be going terribly wrong, and perhaps more of us should be taking notice.


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    • profile image

      Jasper Satterfield 

      8 months ago

      I shudder at the thought of how much more information & evidence must now be available to support the assertion that the US has now basically become some form of a police state—albeit not as severe as most.

      Even more frightening is the apathy and lack of concern (much less outrage!) of the citizens. It seems very plausible if not downright likely, that by the time the population at large realizes and tries to react, it will be too late!

      Last year I faced a harsh reality of being the victim of a very malevolent individual—the worst aspect of the situation was that the situation was so bizarre, unusual and unprecedented that the legal system was all but useless. The attorneys I consulted, as well as a judge, told me that the laws were not written with a case like mine in mind and there were essentially no provisions to deal with my predicament in a reasonable or fair manner.

      As a result, I lost virtually everything that I owned—that I had worked and saved for decades to acquire including thousands of vinyl records and high end DJ equipment, a respectable DIY home workshop for home improvement, electronics and computer/mobile device repair which included many specialty tools (manual and powered), quite a collection of parts & supplies; computers, a great deal of computer parts and equipment, plus all the personal documents, media, photos and creative/design projects stored on them (in many ways all of that has been the most devastating!). All of my clothes and other personal items as well as furniture, household items, and so on. Essentially I was was left destitute, homeless, and without resources or even my normal means of self-employment! At least I had my car, and that was until recently my functional residence! And I'm lucky to still have that after the police department impounded it due to expired registration (which was the result of the engine light being on making it impossible to pass safety & emissions tests required to renew registration—resulting from the financial & other harm I was already suffering). From why I learned during the ordeal, they are essentially involved in what amounts to vehicle theft!

      Thanks to some terrible local laws which they were exploiting, it was virtually impossible for me to meet their requirements to cover my car—which had all of my remaining possessions and was my residence and only shelter!

      I only circumvented them by "selling" my vehicle to a friend in another state, who then, as the owner, but not bound by the local laws, was able to collect the vehicle—and only a few days shy of the point at which they declare the vehicle "forfeited" (or some such nonsense) which was after only 40 days!

      There is a very large number of individuals and households in this country who would be in grave danger of being ruined and losing everything because of one small, unfortunate event (that may or may be their fault or within their control—not that it should matter anyway…). And that is not a good situation.

      And this pandemic is not a small thing! So I shudder to consider what the aftermath of this will be like for a great many Americans—and the desperate circumstances they will be stranded in with no where to turn for help.

      Things could get ugly quickly. But, hey— at least we've got a police state to protect the wealthy, right?!

    • Astrid McClymont profile image

      Astrid McClymont 

      22 months ago from Glasgow, Scotland

      Hi, Lyndon. Thank you for publishing this. I agree with absolutely everything you say. Yet when I try to broach the subject with people I'm usually seen as a conspiracy nut. The facts are miserable but fascinating, and more people need to read them.

    • LHwritings profile imageAUTHOR

      Lyndon Henry 

      8 years ago from Central Texas


      As an update to this article, there's an excellent op-ed by Raymond Bonner in the New York Times (2 March 2012) that focuses on America's criminally dysfunctional and inequitable "criminal justice" system:

      When Innocence Isn’t Enough

      The commentary examines the case of Edward Lee Elmore, recently freed from Death Row in South Carolina after spending 30 years for a crime he had nothing to do with. "The state concealed evidence that strongly pointed to Mr. Elmore’s innocence and introduced damning evidence that appears to have been planted by the police" writes Bonner.

      Here's a compelling excerpt from Bonner's commentary:


      Once a person has been convicted, even on unimaginably shaky grounds, an almost inexorable process — one that can end in execution — is set in motion. On appeal, gone is the presumption of innocence; the presumption is that the defendant had a fair trial. Not even overwhelming evidence that the defendant is innocent is necessarily enough to get a new trial. “Due process does not require that every conceivable step be taken, at whatever cost, to eliminate the possibility of convicting an innocent person,” Justice Byron R. White wrote for the majority in a 1977 case, Patterson v. New York.

      In other words, innocence is not enough.


      There was “persuasive evidence that the agents were outright dishonest,” and there was “further evidence of police ineptitude and deceit,” Judge Robert Bruce King wrote.

      Even though he walked out of court on Friday, none can call it justice.


      "A man has served 30 years for a crime he did not commit, many of those under the threat of imminent execution" writes Bonner. "Surely, there are grounds for a Justice Department investigation into whether his civil rights were violated."

    • UnnamedHarald profile image

      David Hunt 

      8 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Very sobering information, LH. We get so used to it, it seems normal, but when our imprisonment rate exceeds Russia's, well, maybe it's not so normal. "Police State Creep" is a good term-- it's like the term "weapon inflation" I refer to in my Militarization Of the US Police" article. Voted up and interesting. Thanks for a great read-- and interesting comment.

    • emmaspeaks profile image


      9 years ago from Kansas City

      You are absolutely right. And as a protester myself, I guess that makes me a terrorist. You're darn right I agree with your article, and I am concerned as a citizen. Keep on raising awareness!

    • LHwritings profile imageAUTHOR

      Lyndon Henry 

      9 years ago from Central Texas

      Emma, thanks for the positive feedback.

      On the NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act), passed with bipartisan enthusiasm by both far-right House and moderately "center"-right Senate, and signed by Barack Obama, this is an extremely sinister measure that now allows the president to arbitrarily declare a U.S. citizen a "terrorist" and hold him or her indefinitely, without trial. "Indefinitely" is an awfully long time...

      This measure effectively trashes the right of habeas corpus (a protection in common law dating back I think to the Magna Carta). Basically, any of us can now legally be designated a "terrorist" and held without trial at the whim of the federal administration. This should make any thinking person pretty nervous.

      Combine measures like this — which keep piling up — with the growing prison population, and you might understand why I push the "police state" button in the article above.


    • emmaspeaks profile image


      9 years ago from Kansas City

      Nicely researched and written article! I agree. I see it more now with the Occupy movement and it really pisses me off. Especially with the passing of the NDAA. Not too many people know or care about what it actually says and how it is vague enough to be a serious problem for everyone. Great work!


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