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Does Our Prison Population Reflect a Broken Criminal Justice System?

 

Writers and reformers have been decrying the large number of prisoners in the United States for a number of years.

For instance, Michelle Alexander in her 2010 book The New Jim Crow calls for a movement to confront mass incarceration. Attorney General Eric Holder described mass incarceration as a moral and economic crisis. And Todd Clear, professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in his book Imprisoning Communities: How Mass Incarceration Makes Disadvantaged Neighborhoods Worse states that incarceration not only destroys neighborhoods but actually makes crime rates go up rather than down.

And various states, including California and Texas, have made efforts to change the criminal justice systems to reduce imprisoning so many people.

In addition, with the greater awareness by everyone — in and out of the justice system — about long prison sentences for drug offenders and non-violent offenders, it has been expected with everyone seemingly working on the same problem that prison rates would go down. And that, in fact, seems to have been happening in the past few years.

One of the major reasons why both states and the federal government have been taking a serious look at speeding up sentencing reform has to do the conscience-pricking evidence that there are social and racial differences in sentences handed out. However, perhaps more to the point for many in politics, the prolonged recession we’ve had in this country made it impossible for many states to continue to pay for the care of inmates.

In September, 2014, the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics has reported the results of all this effort to reduce our prison population. And what has this effort, this national pulling together to change the criminal justice, brought about?

Alas, it’s not good news. State and federal correctional institutions, as of the end of 2013, held an estimated 1,574,700 prisoners – an increase of 4,300 inmates from the end of 2012. Furthermore, jails house more than 700,000 prisoners, which means that there are about 2.3 million prisoners in the U.S. We continue to be the number one country in the world in terms of our total number of prisoners.

And this is because crime continually rises, right?

Wrong! The crime rate has been continually and dramatically decreasing since 1993. Almost every category of violent crime and property crime has been declining by remarkable rates in the past 20 years.

So, what accounts for the on-going high prison population?

There is no one answer to this question. There are several answers. Each one is important in contributing to the problem:

  • Mandatory-minimum sentences: With get-tough-on-crime approaches in the criminal justice system since the 1970s, legislatures, including the federal government, have adopted mandatory minimum sentences. These feature fixed sentences that judges are unable to reduce. Some states have begun to change these, but in many states they still exist and dictate long sentences for many kinds of offenses.
  • Previously long sentences: With harsh sentencing in effect for nearly 40 years, people previously incarcerated are serving lengthy prison terms. In many instances, these are life sentences because they don’t allow for parole.
  • Very conservative parole boards: Parole boards in many states have shown a reluctance to release prisoners on parole – even if they are eligible and even if they are clearly rehabilitated. Policies in the criminal justice system for a very long time have been largely driven by public fears. When the media in this country focuses on and sensationalizes cases of violent crime, while at the same time portraying judges and parole boards as too lenient, then the media and the politicians – backed by public fears – advocate a tough-on-crime approach. This all hinges on the belief that tough, long sentences reduce recidivism and crime. The public believes this – and parole boards believe this. It doesn’t matter that there is no evidence supporting it.
  • The war of drugs: Drug laws and acts passed by Congress, beginning chiefly in the 1970s, increased government control and involvement in what became known as “the war on drugs.” The Omnibus Drug Act of 1980 and succeeding laws were all aimed at toughening the approaches to drug users, drug manufacturers, and drug distributors. Yet people in this country continue to use drugs. Despite all of our laws and all of our efforts to win the war on drugs, tough laws and strict sentences have not changed anything; the enforcement of drug laws remains a difficult and costly problem. It is agreed by many criminal justice experts that the war on drugs has been a colossal, trillion dollar failure. It has resulted in many people receiving long prison terms, but we are nowhere near solving the drug problem
  • A one-dimensional approach to corrections: Our society’s first response to crime is to lock someone up. We talk about community corrections and rehabilitating offenders, but it is obvious that all way along the line – from top to bottom – in criminal justice the most frequent approach is to lock ‘em up. It is true that a bare majority of offenders get probation to start with, but when they violate probation, the next step is jail or prison. Locking up offenders doesn’t work. It doesn’t prevent crime and it certainly doesn’t prevent recidivism. But we keep doing it. And everyone in the criminal justice system, especially prosecutors and judges, must share some responsibility for this short-sighted approach to corrections.

 

There have been some appeals on both the state and national level for criminal justice reform. A good place to start would be to recognize that our over-populated prisons reflect the bankrupt and broken criminal justice system that exists in this country.

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