America has a larger proportion of people in prison than any other country due to variety of reasons. Some of the most important factors contributing to the high prison population are:
1. The War on Drugs- America has some of the most draconian drug laws on the books. A large proportion of arrest and incarcerations are due to non violent drug offences, in quantities that would not lead to arrests in most Western democracies.
2. Harsh Sentecing guidlines- Things like the 3 strike law and mandatory minumum sentecing leads to a large prison population, as judges and prosecutors are mandated by law to put repeat offenders in prison or to impose prison for crimes that otherwise may have resulted in probation or alternative punishment.
3. The Prison Industrial Complex - A large proportion of prisons are profit based enterprises that are intertwined with politics, law enforcement and the justice system. Their is a monetary incentive on all levels of the sustem for people to be incarcerated in large numbers, so this leads to a high proportion of arrests and incarcerations. The harsh prison system also leads to a revolving door system where hardened criminals mat be incarcerated and released multiply times withing their lifetime. The prisons generaly serve as a hardening ground for criminals.
4. General Societal Ills: Things like poverty, lack of education and breakdown of the family unit all contribute to an increase in crime and break down of law and order in communities accross America.
On the one hand, it is clear why we have more people incarcerated. It is because of our laws. There are two main kinds of laws that cause this. First, there are our drug laws, which incarcerate people for long periods of time for minor drug offenses. Second, there are our mandatory sentencing laws, which apply to drugs and to other things. These laws require that we keep people in prison longer than we otherwise might.
But this brings up another question: why do we have such laws? Here, the answers are less clear. There are many possibilities. Let me look at four.
First, we can say that it is because we have a lot of crime. The US has more crime than most other rich nations. Therefore, we have a combination of a lot of crime and a sophisticated and professional police force. That, one can argue, makes us have higher rates of incarceration.
Second, we can say that it is because our culture is one that demands revenge. Some scholars argue that our criminal justice system is based largely on Southern culture and that Southern culture has long emphasized the need for retribution.
Third, we can say that this is because of race. Racial minorities are overrepresented in American prisons. White people have generally had more power in our country and may be using that power to create systems that are punitive against racial minorities. Racism, whether overt or subconscious, may be to blame.
Finally, a recent work by the late William Stuntz argues that we emphasize procedure over justice. We have elaborate rules about things like what evidence can be allowed in court. By contrast, we have little that requires justice. We do not have any serious protections against punishments (like long prison sentences for minor drug crimes) that are unjust.