The American prison system is an incredibly expensive part of our economy, with incarceration costs going up each year. A 2014 data collection of state correctional expenditures estimated that the economic costs of administering overcrowded prison systems are over 48 billion dollars each year (Kyckelhahn 2014). This money is coming from American taxpayer dollars and goes towards all of the prison staff wages, electricity, water, food, security, and more. By reducing the number of prisoners incarcerated, the cost of prison administration would also go down.
Despite all of the money being spent on prisons in our nation, there is no evidentiary support to show that incarceration actually prevents crime. In fact it is thought to be the opposite. An article Prison Conditions and Recidivism provides evidence that, “Overall, prison harshness, measured by overcrowding and numbers of deaths in prison, exacerbates recidivism (Drago, Francesco, Galbiati &Vertova 2011). This shows that prisons that are overcrowded, which are the majority of prisons in America, can contribute to offenders who are released re-offending and being re-incarcerated.
With less money being spent on prisons, more money could be spent focusing on rehabilitating offenders to ensure that they don’t repeat the cycle of crime and end up back in prison or jail. Factors Contributing to the Problem During the time that crime rates rose and the criminal justice system became disciplinary, there was a shift in political power. Conservative republicans were gaining power in the country, and the topic of the criminal justice system and crime in America became a focal point for political conversation during elections.
Conservative republicans during this time worked tirelessly to create a fear of crime in the public in order to use this fear to gain political power and change popular perceptions of crime to alter public policy in their favor. These politicians promised that with tougher sentencing laws, that the crime rates would decrease. Furthermore, they assured citizens of America that the threat of harsh punishment would deter criminal activity and it would no longer be such an alarming issue.
In the book The Politics of Injustice: Crime and Punishment in America, the authors argue that, “that conservative politicians have worked for decades to alter popular perceptions of crime, delinquency, addiction, and poverty, and to promote policies that involve ‘getting tough’ and ‘cracking down’” (Beckett & Theodore 2004). In thanks to the punitive punishment era, a number of legislation pieces passed in the 1980s and 1990s that made sentencing harsher and longer.
Amongst the biggest legislation changes that resulted in mass incarceration in the United States were mandatory sentencing and truth-in-sentencing policies. All of which were meant to increase the time offenders spent in prison to deter crime. Mandatory sentencing is a punishment legislation that was enacted to make imprisonment more certain through taking away judge discretion. Instead, as explained in an article by Lowenthal, “some statues require the convicted offender to serve a mandatory prison term that otherwise would not be applicable to commission of the offense” (Lowenthal 1993).
Therefore some crimes that would not usually result in incarceration became ways for even more offenders to end up in prison and jail. The most infamous example of mandatory sentencing can be seen in three strikes law. As defined in an article by Sutton, many states across the country enacted three strikes laws and still use them to this day, and the law states that offenders convicted of any certain class of felonies for a third time receive a life time sentence in prison (Sutton 2013).
Truth-in-sentencing policies are a form of legislation that following similarly to mandatory sentencing. These truth-in-sentencing laws required that violent offenders serve a majority of their prison sentence and aim to abolish parole as much as possible. On the contrary as noted by Owens in her article, “In states without TIS laws, good-time credit and capacity constraints mean that convicted offenders typically serve half their sentence before being released by parole boards” (Owens 2011).
What both of these legislations ended up doing was incarcerating more and more non-violent offenders who could have gone on probation or parole and kept the prison population from getting so large that it became overcrowded. Description of Elements of Recommended Interventions Due to the fact that mass incarceration is having a negative effect on our country, it is incredibly important that something be done to stop the high incarceration rate and lower the prison and jail population.
Luckily, in the last decade or so, the criminal justice perspective has been changing from punitive, like it was during the tough on crime era, to rehabilitative like it was before the 1980s. With this way of thinking coming back into power, criminologists can help to influence public policy, changing the way of thinking in our criminal justice system. Instead of locking them up and throwing away the key, the system can lean more on rehabilitative programs to help prevent offenders from being put in prison or jail, and help get prisoners that are currently incapacitated released from prison and put in the correctional system.
Prison reform is absolutely necessary, and the philosophy needs to be changed from tough-on-crime to smart-on-crime. Fortunately, in the last decade, nationwide prison rates have been declining as rehabilitation once again becomes the focus in the criminal justice system. However, this does not mean that the issue of mass incarceration is no longer relevant. During the time of mass incarceration, there were so many persons incarcerated that the damage was catastrophic.
The nation is still reeling from the effects and the prison population rates need to keep going down. The history of the criminal justice system shows us that our perspective changes back and forth over time from rehabilitation to punitiveness. We can insure that the prison rates keep declining and rehabilitation stays the focus of public policy through two changes in the criminal justice system. First, we need to change the way in which we conduct sentencing, and secondly, we need more rehabilitation programs available in lieu of incapacitation.
Sentencing in the American criminal justice system is punitive. Sentencing guidelines changed in the 1980s with legislation that dramatically increased inmates’ sentence length and took away judge discretion. The three strike’s law that called for longer sentences and mandatory minimum sentencing that dictated the minimum time an offender must serve for a certain crime, as well as requiring inmates to serve at least eight percent of their sentence. Stricter sentencing guidelines also took away sentence reduction for ‘good time’.
If legislation were to be drafted that changed sentencing guidelines to be less punitive, the number of offenders who would end up in prison would be greatly reduced. The power of changing sentencing guidelines is held by the sentencing commission. The sentencing commission is an agency of the federal government that is responsible for mandating sentencing guidelines. In an article on reducing mass incarceration it is suggested that, “In order to reduce the federal prison population, the Commission must also revise the guidelines to make them less severe” (Adelman 2013).
If sentencing guidelines were adjusted to make probation more likely for low level offenders, it could change the sentences of current incarcerated inmates at the same time as preventing more offenders from being incapacitated. If the criminal justice system wants to lower prison and jail populations through reducing the lengths of sentences for certain crimes, it is necessary to provide more rehabilitative options that don’t include incarceration. If offenders are not being incapacitated, they need to be monitored and serve their time in another way that still restores the harm they did to the community.
This can be done through rehabilitation approach to criminal justice which focuses on re-integrating the offender into society to help prevent recidivism. There are many rehabilitative options such as probation, halfway houses, GPS monitoring, group homes, and more. The type of rehabilitative program that an offender should be placed in is dependent on the offender themselves and their specific situation. For more serious and violent offenders, more restrictive programs should be used to ensure success and prevent a criminal cycle.
For less serious offenders it may be more beneficial to be less hands on. There is no end to the penal state our country is in without a radical change in current policies and more rehabilitative resources. Identification of Barriers/Supports The topic of prison overcrowding and the era of mass incarceration is a heavily debated topic in the United States. It has become a growing concern for many Americans, as well as a political platform for many public figures in the past years.
Evidence supports the fact that prisons in America are severely overcrowded. This evidence establishes a need for prison inmate rate reduction through the reduction of long prison sentences and the increase of rehabilitative options in the criminal justice system. Through the process of reducing prison sentences and offering more rehabilitative programs, there would be a significantly lower rate of incarceration in the United States. This would lower the current cost of managing prisons as well as increase the quality of living within the prisons.
Without as many inmates, prisons could put the money towards probational programs and the inmates currently residing in prisons and jails would receive better attention, more living space, and a better chance at getting into prison programs meant to aid prisoners in getting out and staying out. Despite the support for prison reform through sentencing policy changes and a more rehabilitative approach, there are barriers that need to be identified. As of 2017, the political party has once again switched to conservative.
This may have a lasting effect on the criminal justice system as the republican party once again pushes for a tough on crime era. As proven in the past, those who have political power hold power in the criminal justice system and it may be hard to pass rehabilitative legislation. The use of the media is also much more prevalent in our day and age and in recent years has been the main platform for fueling the fear of crime, despite the fact that violent crime has been decreasing.
Without the support of politicians and the majority of the country, it will be difficult to get funding for rehabilitative programs. Instead, it is likely that the money will be directed towards funding the ever-growing prison system and building more prisons that will evidently be filled. The execution of prison reform faces many challenges. However, through the education of citizens on the effects of prison overcrowding, as well as the evidentiary support that lowering mass incarceration would have a positive impact in the United States, it can be achieved.
With prison reform and the increase of funding for the release and rehabilitation of prisoners through rehabilitative programs, incapacitation rates can be lowered significantly. When the costs of prison reform are weighed against the benefits of lowering incarceration rates, it is clear to see that the benefits outweigh any of the barriers. In the long run, more correctional rehabilitative programs would have a better effect than the continuation of mass incarceration.