Mass Incarceration: A Massive Problem - Policy Brief [Class Assignment]

Executive Summary

This policy brief examines the issue of mass incarceration and its potential policy solutions. There are large portions of the United States who are currently in prison. The United States and subsequent states have spent over $100 billion a year in recent years on the incarceration and punishment of individuals convicted of a crime. In addition to this high price tag, outright incarceration and punishment have proven to be ineffective and more expensive than focused rehabilitation and reintegration of individuals into modern society.

There are a number of potential solutions to this policy issue. The first is to expand halfway house programs in the United States. This would be done by an expansion of money available for halfway house operation contracts, money that would be available at both the state and federal levels. The second option is to eliminate the use of mandatory minimums in sentencing and prosecution for non-violent drug offenses. This would be done using a piece of legislation for federal prosecution and an incentive program, much like the one in the 1994 Crime Bill, for state prosecution. The last option is to decriminalize the personal possession of all drugs. This would turn drug infractions into a system much like a traffic citation, instead of a carceral issue. It would encourage people to seek rehabilitation and follow the model of decriminalization instituted by Oregon in 2021.

The policy recommendation would be to implement all three of these policies using a piece of federal legislation that eliminates federal mandatory minimums and an omnibus spending package that expands contracts for halfway houses and creates incentive programs for the statewide elimination of mandatory minimums, as well as the statewide decriminalization of drugs.


There are large swaths of the United States population currently in correction facilities. Correction facilities are overcrowded and ineffective at producing productive members of society. The United States has spent over $100 billion a year on incarceration. The United States’ correctional facility population makes up over 20% of the world’s correctional facility population, despite the general population making up less than 5% of the overall world population. The United States has the highest number of people incarcerated per capita than any other developed country. In the United States, people in correctional facilities often lack access to rehabilitation and treatments that they need in order to be productive members of society. In addition, these programs are often understaffed and underfunded, resulting in even less access to rehabilitation programs that would encourage real recovery as opposed to recidivism and punishment. Mass incarceration is a public policy issue. As more people are incarcerated ineffectively, we will only guarantee that a growing portion of our population will come out of correctional facilities unprepared for life outside of a correctional facility. The formerly incarcerated will not be equipped to get a good-paying job and will depend on welfare to live. This will increase welfare costs and encourage people to continue to commit crimes in order to make money or fuel the drug dependency that was left untreated when they went to a correctional facility.

In recent years, the United States and subsequent state governments have spent over $100 billion a year on the operation of correctional facilities (Wagner & Rabuy, 2017). Although correctional facilities and their operation are expensive, they also provide little rehabilitation services for incarcerated individuals with drug dependencies. About 50% of the correctional facility population in the United States is eligible for drug dependency services, however, only about 10% of that drug-dependent population has access to rehabilitation programs for their drug dependency (Zarkin et al., 2012, 1). In these lifetime simulation models, researchers found that an increase in access to the drug rehabilitation programs not only increased the likelihood that inmates would seek help, but it also decreased the recidivism and overall incarceration rate for the correctional facilities (Zarkin et al., 2012, 13). In the same study, researchers estimated that there was a 17% drop in the number of crimes committed after incarceration among the cohort of inmates who would seek out this type of drug rehabilitation program (Zarkin et al., 2012, 15). In addition, the prioritization of a drug rehabilitation program in correctional facilities would actually decrease the costs of correctional facility operations, according to a cost-benefit analysis done by the researchers in this same study.

Halfway houses are institutions in the United States justice system that work to rehabilitate non-violent drug offenders and give them the tools they need to become productive members of US society. In recent years, halfway houses have become a staple tool in the successful reintegration of inmates into their communities and the public at large. When an inmate reaches the end of their sentence, they often struggle with reintegrating back into the world, resulting in drug abuse and the inmate being incarcerated again. Halfway houses have been found to drastically reduce the likelihood that an inmate abuses substances or commits more crime (Shukla, 2016). One study, that aimed to analyze the often inconsistent results that researchers get when studying reentry programs for formerly incarcerated people, found that halfway houses are continually an effective means of drug rehabilitation and reentry for incarcerated people in the United States (Wong et al., 2019, 17). This particular study used an advanced coding scheme with 78 variables in order to analyze the statistics of the various empirical studies conducted on halfway houses in recent years. The code separated aspects of halfway houses and drug rehabilitation programs into different categories in order to paint a better picture of the true effects that halfway houses have on substance abuse issues and incarceration (Wong et al., 2019, 7).

In North Carolina, there is a large substance abuse problem among former inmates. Inmates who resided in a correctional facility in North Carolina are nine times more likely to overdose and die from the overdose than a North Carolina resident that has not been incarcerated (Ranapurwala et al., 2018, 1). In addition to this high overdose death rate, inmates in North Carolina who are dependent on opioids return to correctional facilities at a much higher rate (Ranapurwala et al., 2018, 4). About 38% of the inmates returned to correctional facilities at least once within the 15 year time period in which this study was conducted.

From the perspective of the public, mass incarceration is also an issue. 52% of Americans believe that there are too many people in correctional facilities and that less expensive, and more effective alternatives should be pursued (Morning Consult, 2016).

Expanding Halfway House Programs

To combat these issues, we have three policy options. The first is to expand halfway house programs in the United States. Halfway house programs already exist in the United States. In numerous studies, they have been proven to be effective at rehabilitating non-violent drug offenders and lowering correctional facility populations (Wong et al., 2019, 17). Since these programs already exist and we know they work at reintegrating inmates into modern society, this is a very straightforward solution. Federal and state correctional facilities would contract out halfway house operations as they do now, making the halfway houses easier to run and they would require less government expansion to run these programs (Shukla, 2016). Halfway houses are actually less expensive and more effective than outright incarceration (Zarkin et al., 2012, 15). Halfway houses work with local communities to create rehabilitation and employment opportunities for the inmates in these facilities. This allows the inmates to continue under supervision, while also participating in things that will allow the inmates to reintegrate into the larger society. Because of this, halfway houses have been proven to reduce recidivism rates no matter where they’re located (Wong et al., 2019, 19). One potential drawback to this policy solution is the entrenchment that private prison corporations have in US politics. Many of the contracts between private prisons and state governments stipulate that the private prison must keep the prison at capacity, or pay for the empty beds. This incentivizes private prisons to fill prisons to capacity, often overcrowding them and making them unsustainable. De-populating correctional facilities using halfway houses would likely receive some pushback from the private prison industry. One workaround for this would be to contract out this expanded halfway house program to private prison companies like GEO Group. This move wouldn’t be unprecedented, as GEO Group already operates around 30% of the halfway houses in the United States (Daniel & Sawyer, 2020). That being said, politicians who are in the pocket of these private prison groups might be incentivized to oppose anything that might de-populate prisons. Politicians are often motivated by public opinion, so the fact that a majority of Americans believe that the carceral system needs to be reformed would help with this policy solution (Morning Consult, 2016).

Eliminate Mandatory Minimum Sentences

The second policy option is to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders. If someone is convicted of a crime that falls under a mandatory minimum, you must serve at least that minimum sentence. Mandatory minimums were made by a set of laws aimed at sentencing uniformity (Cullen, 2018). Instead of allowing judges to consider the facts of the case, the power is turned over to prosecutors, who can threaten to charge defendants with crimes that would trigger a mandatory minimum (Caulkins & Rydell, 1997). Of the defendants in federal prison right now, 55% of them were sentenced under a mandatory minimum, and 66.9% of drug offenders currently in federal prison were sentenced under a mandatory minimum (Pryor et al., 2017). Mandatory minimums are especially harsh for non-violent drug offenders, who are sentenced to long sentences for these non-violent drug offenses and do not have the option of rehabilitation or treatment. In recent decades, mandatory minimums have become an increasingly popular solution to drug spikes, especially after the introduction of the 1984 Sentencing Reform Act, which expanded the mandatory minimums for federal crimes (Cullen, 2018). While mandatory minimums are most prevalent in federal cases, North Carolina is one of fifteen states that still holds strict mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenses (Knopf, 2018). Someone convicted of possession of four grams of Heroin is subject to 70 months in state prison and the charge constitutes as a Class F felony, a felony commonly used in North Carolina to classify violent sex crimes and stalking. Eliminating mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenses would enable the justice system to de-populate correctional facilities and encourage rehabilitation programs like halfway houses, rather than outright incarceration. There are many ways in which to approach this policy option. The most comprehensive way to address the issue of mandatory minimum sentences would be to pass an omnibus piece of legislation in US Congress that addresses mandatory minimums at the state and federal levels (Lynch, 2021). The federal side of this legislation package would eliminate mandatory minimums for federal non-violent drug crimes. It would then fall to US Courts to implement this new policy in both sentencing and prosecution of non-violent drug crimes (News Staff, 2021). The other part of this omnibus package would be federal incentives for states to eliminate or amend their own mandatory minimum laws. While the federal government can’t force states to enact this reform, it can offer financial incentives just like the Clinton Administration did in 1994 with the 1994 Crime Bill or Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (Ending Mass Incarceration: The Need for Federal Incentives, 2016). This law allotted $12.5 billion for states to increase incarceration by building prisons and jails. Over half of this money was reserved for states that passed truth-in-sentencing laws that require an inmate to serve at least 85% of their sentence (Ending Mass Incarceration: The Need for Federal Incentives, 2016). By 1999, 29 states had transformed their sentencing processes to reflect these truth-in-sentencing clauses (Ending Mass Incarceration: The Need for Federal Incentives, 2016). A federal incentive like this that is attached to mandatory minimum sentence reform is likely to have a large impact on state mandatory minimum legislation and guidelines. One concern about mandatory minimum reform is the discretionary nature of sentencing and prosecution. Just because mandatory minimums are eliminated, it doesn’t mandate that prosecutors seek out lower sentences or judges sentence offenders to less time (Small, 2021). That being said, sentencing guidelines would likely be written to reflect the options that prosecutors and judges now have when it comes to the prosecution and sentencing of non-violent drug offenses. While a sentencing guideline is not a mandate, the vast majority of judges and prosecutors abide by the guidelines set forth in these sentencing guideline documents. In addition, public opinion is on the side of non-violent drug offenders. The public largely believes that sentencing needs to be reformed and better alternatives to incarceration should be pursued (Morning Consult, 2016).

Decriminalize Personal Drug Possession

The third policy option we have is to decriminalize drug usage in the United States. Over 1.6 million people are incarcerated in the United States per year (Mandatory Sentencing Was Once America's Law-And-Order Panacea. Here's Why It's Not Working., 2000) for drug crimes. Many of them are convicted of non-violent, low-level possession of highly illegal substances like Marijuana, Cocaine, Crack-Cocaine, Meth, and Heroin (Pryor et al., 2017). In the United States, about 15% of inmates in state correctional facilities were convicted of a drug charge as their most serious crime. The number is closer to 50% when talking about federal correctional facilities (Pryor et al., 2017). By decriminalizing drug usage in the United States, the justice system would not incarcerate or penalize users over drug usage and would encourage them to seek counseling for help, therefore lowering the overall prison population and encouraging rehabilitation. This would not decriminalize high quantity drug operations or drug charges that involved violent offenders (Morning Edition, 2021). As with mandatory minimums, there are a number of ways that this policy could actually be implemented. When looking at countries that have decriminalized drug usage, there are some unique factors, like the lack of universal healthcare, that exist in the United States and make those models difficult to replicate. However, most recently the state of Oregon has decriminalized all drug usage and has implemented a model that prioritizes rehabilitation of these drug users. The Oregon system of decriminalization imposes a system for drug users much like a traffic citation or a parking ticket (Westervelt, 2021). It is administered as a $100 fine, which can get waived if the individual shows proof of a drug counseling consultation (Morning Edition, 2021). Tax revenue from recreational marijuana goes to expanded rehabilitation programs outside and within the correctional facilities. The most complex part of this policy option is the implementation. It is likely that if there was a federal drug decriminalization mandate, it would be heavily fought in court by states and individuals who object to the policy. That being said, if it was instituted at a state level, the program could vary greatly state by state, especially if local governing bodies were given authority on the implementation and enforcement of the policy. The best way to approach this issue would likely be a federal incentive program, not unlike the one outlined in the second policy option, where states would be given a legislative framework, and if they met the criteria outlined by the federal government, they would receive some amount of federal funds to add to their overall statewide budget. Another potential drawback to this policy would be the political viability of the policy. Currently, there is not much public support or political support for this issue. It is also not clear whether the policy is effective in the long term, as it hasn’t existed in the United States for an extended period of time.

Policy Recommendations

This complex policy issue requires a robust solution. In order to address the issues of mass incarceration in a way that is sustainable and productive for all people involved, I recommend implementing all the above policy options. First, I recommend that Congress pass an independent bill that eliminates mandatory minimums at the federal level. This bill would phase out mandatory minimums by requiring that they be fully discontinued and disused by the time new federal sentencing guidelines are published. This would allow time for sentencing guidelines to be amended. In addition, this would also give prosecutors and judges ample time to change their habits and general processes when it comes to non-violent drug offenses that carry these mandatory minimums. Coupled with this, I recommend an omnibus spending package be passed that addresses the rest of the policy options. This bill would include funding earmarked for states that eliminate or amend mandatory minimums, more funding for state and federal contracts on halfway houses, and funding earmarked for states that follow the Oregon model of decriminalizing drugs. I propose that $12 billion be earmarked for states to improve prison rehabilitation centers if they eliminate or amend their mandatory minimum legislation currently in place. This would allocate about $800 million to each state that currently has an untouched mandatory minimum policy in place. Correctional facilities would have ample money to invest in an effective rehabilitation program that would be able to be hosted inside the actual correctional facility. The second budget item in this omnibus bill would be federal money to expand both state and federal halfway house programs. I propose an additional $2 billion a year in contracts to expand halfway house programs. This policy, coupled with the elimination of mandatory minimums would greatly expand the accessibility of halfway houses and lower the cost of outright incarceration since more defendants would be in halfway houses instead of serving mandatory minimums. The last item in this omnibus bill would be money earmarked for states who follow the Oregon model for state decriminalization. I propose $25 billion be earmarked for states that pass the Oregon model of drug decriminalization. This would allow all states to receive an additional $500 million towards their general statewide budget, should they pass this model of legislation.


Correctional facilities are overcrowded. Inmates often live in inhumane conditions that are not sustainable for a dignified life. Many of these inmates also face severe drug dependency issues, and these drug dependencies are often what got them into a correctional facility in the first place. Despite this, correctional facilities offer little to no resources for these inmates to address the dependencies and contribute as a good members of the larger society. And yet, even though correctional facilities are overcrowded and ineffective at treating the needs of the inmates, the correctional facilities often cost more to operate than rehabilitation and reintegration programs do. This policy problem and its solutions are paramount to the pursuit of better communities for all Americans. That’s why we must look at this ineffective and expensive system critically and change the ways in which it is operated. We can do that through the policy options outlined above. By expanding halfway houses, we grow the ways in which inmates can seek out rehabilitation and reintegration, in addition to de-populating the overcrowded correctional facilities. In addition to expanding halfway houses, eliminating mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenses and decriminalizing the personal use of drugs would encourage rehabilitation and de-populate prisons, all the while being less expensive than the explicit incarceration that is practiced today in the United States carceral system. As more people are incarcerated ineffectively, we will only guarantee that a growing portion of our population will come out of correctional facilities unprepared for life outside of a correctional facility. The formerly incarcerated will not be equipped to get a good-paying job and will depend on welfare to live. This will increase welfare costs and encourage people to continue to commit crimes in order to make money or fuel the drug dependency that was left untreated when they went to a correctional facility. We must address this issue at its core if we want to see effective results.


Caulkins, J. P., & Rydell, P. (1997). Are mandatory minimum drug sentences cost-effective? RAND Corporation.

Cullen, J. (2018, October 5). Sentencing laws and how they contribute to mass incarceration. Brennan Center for Justice.

Daniel, R., & Sawyer, W. (2020, September 3). What you should know about halfway houses. Prison Policy.,of%20all%20halfway%20houses%20nationwide.

Ending mass incarceration: the need for federal incentives. (2016, January 29). Equal Justice Initiative.

Knopf, T. (2018, August 8). N.C. judges could get more discretion on drug crimes. North Carolina Health News.

Lynch, S. (2021, September 28). U.S. House passes bill to end disparities in crack cocaine sentences. Reuters.

Mandatory sentencing was once america's law-and-order panacea. Here's why it's not working. (2000). Prison Policy Initiative.

Mass incarceration and criminalization. (2020, January 1). Drug Policy Alliance.

National Tracking Poll 160812. (2016). Morning Consult.

News Staff, B. C. (2021, October 13). Mandatory jail sentences for nonviolent drug offenses to end in 2022. The Almanac.

Pryor, W. H., Barkow, R. E., Breyer, C. R., Reeves, D. C., Smoot, J. P. W., & Wroblewski, J. J. (2017, July 11). 2017 Overview of mandatory minimum penalties in the federal criminal justice system. United States Sentencing Commission.

Ranapurwala, S., Shanahan, M., Alexandridis, A., Proescholdbell, S., Naumann, R., Edwards, D., & Marshall, S. (2018). Opioid overdose mortality among former north carolina inmates. American Public Health Association, 108(9), 7. 10.2105/AJPH.2018.304514

Shukla, R. (2016). Exploring the role of concentrated reentry in the relationship between halfway houses and recidivism [Dissertation]. ProQuest Publishing.

Small, J. (2021, October 13). Public safety, sentencing reform not incompatible. Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.

Vera Institute of Justice. (2018). Case study: north carolina. Overdose Deaths and Jail Incarceration.

Wagner, P., & Rabuy, B. (2017, January 25). Following the money of mass incarceration. Prison Policy Initiative.

Westervelt, E. (2021, June 18). Oregon's pioneering drug decriminalization experiment is now facing the hard test. NPR.

Wong, J., Bouchard, J., Gushue, K., & Lee, C. (2019). Halfway out: an examination of the effects of halfway houses on criminal recidivism. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 63(7), 20. 10.1177/0306624X18811964

Zarkin, G., Cowell, A., Hicks, K., Mills, M., Belenko, S., Dunlap, L., Houser, K., & Keyes, V. (2012). Benefits and costs of substance abuse treatment programs for state prison inmates: results from a lifetime simulation model. Health Economics, 21(633-02), 20. 10.1002/hec.1735

Recent Posts