The U.S. has more individuals locked up per capita than any other country in the world with an estimated 2.3 million prisoners. This mass incarceration trend started in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with Texas following suit when its state prison population tripled from 50,000 inmates in 1990 to just over 150,000 by 2001.
These numbers should raise eyebrows and call into question who is being incarcerated and on what charges. The fact of the matter is that the U.S. doesn’t have higher instances of crime, rather the justice system criminalizes non violent and arbitrary offenses — like poverty.
Of these 2.3 million prisoners, there are two to note. One is Ethan Couch, who is currently in prison for violating his parole. The other is Jaime Arellano, who is currently serving a sentence for manslaughter.
Almost four years ago, 16 year-old Ethan Couch killed four innocent bystanders while driving drunk. However, it wasn’t the crime that made headlines, rather it was his defense and light punishment. Couch’s lawyer claimed that his client suffered from affluenza, a psychological condition that argued the teen could not identify right-from-wrong because of his wealthy and spoiled upbringing. The court bought it and Couch was infamously sentenced to ten years of probation after pleading guilty to four counts of manslaughter.
Jaime Arellano was a Mexican immigrant who at 16 years-old, killed a pregnant woman and her unborn child while driving drunk. Arellano took a plea deal and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
This cycle of poverty and incarceration is a reality for many marginalized Americans and there is little to no hope of escaping it — except if you’re rich. Wealthy Americans who commit the same crimes as poor Americans have an unethical advantage and more lenient sentencing — such as Ethan Couch compared to Jaime Arellano.
There are three elements to the cycle of poverty and incarceration. The first is the arrest, where bail and court fees financially cripple the low-income individual and face harsher outcomes for being unable to pay for these debts. Additionally, when you couple this with the fact that blacks and other minorities are more likely to be arrested by police, the criminal justice system targets a historically disenfranchised demographic. The second element is the incarceration, where inmates work for an average of $.92 an hour and must purchase everything from toiletries to phone calls to family. The third is release, in which former inmates have a higher unemployment rate than those without a criminal record. This causes further financial strains for those who need to pay off the debts they incurred in courts and in prison.
The U.S. criminal justice system cannot be understood outside the context of criminalizing poverty and reform policies should center around this. The criminalization of poverty is all-encompassing and provides answers for other issues, such as racial disparity, and it also explains the elements of an unjust cycle.
Taking a plea bargain is a common tactic, in fact, an estimated 97 percent of convictions are the result of this. Low-income individuals are the most vulnerable to plea bargains since it bypasses a trial they cannot afford, but this means they forfeit a trial-by-jury that could result in a lesser sentence. This is one of the many differences between Couch and Arellano — Couch could afford the trial and bail while Arellano couldn’t.
Regardless, Couch and Arellano committed inexcusable crimes that deserve punishment, yet is part of a larger trend. What makes the U.S. criminal justice system unfair is that the length of these punishments are arbitrary and are contingent to your race and income, among other factors. Although Texas has reduced its incarceration rate and closed three prisons, there is still a long way to go. We need to reconsider how we think about crime and how to stop criminalizing poverty.
Fernandez is a rhetoric and writing and Spanish senior from Allen. She is a Senior Columnist.