We Americans only make up about 5% of the world’s population, yet we imprison 25% of the world’s total prison population!
How we’ve managed to slide into this shameful position isn’t a simple story.
But, the solution may be…
The Brennan Center for Justice a nonpartisan public policy and law institute that focuses on fundamental issues of democracy and justice, recently published prison reform recommendations based on their intensive 3-year study of our American penal system and crimes preceding individual sentencing and incarceration.
Their team analysed 370 crime categories to cull out low-level crimes that had little, or no threat to general public safety.
The research showed that imprisonment for perpetrators of these types of crime, like drug possession, minor larceny, minor fraud, petty burglary and simple forgery, not only doesn’t result in rehabilitation, the results of prison time almost guarantees they’ll become repeat offenders.
Blueprint For Prison Sentences:
In other words, these entry level crimes are most often committed by under-educated, unemployed, young people who are 40% likely a minority – and probably 2nd and 3rd generation poor. Many such offenders just need a helping hand to climb outta of society cracks they’ve fallen into…
Which isn’t going to happen because it’s nearly impossible for the Court to consider circumstances when deciding individual cases. Judges are now ruled by state and federal laws and guidelines that impose standard prison terms for just about any conceivable offense.
Rehabilitation may be the intent, but for 1st time offenders, prison often becomes a ‘crime school’. These impressionable, and scared, new prisoners are sifted into a group of seasoned criminals who pass on their ‘tricks of the trade’.
Time served and released from prison, the now ex-cons are marked with the stigma of a prison record. This bias makes it hard to get a decent job or find a safe place to live. Just to survive, some of these one-timers will turn to the ‘tricks of the trade’ they learned during incarceration.
Thus triggering the cycle of crime that’s keeping our prisons full.
Instead of prison, proposes The Brennan Center for Justice, sentence 1st time offenders with probation, treatment for drug abuse or community service work…
Rather than forcing them into a school for criminality.
This one change could save billions and shrink our prison population by about 364,000 people.
On the surface, this proposal seems likes a ‘no-brainer’.
Yet, social changes are slow to initiate, acceptable agreements between the parties involved are complicated to work out, and selling the agreed upon changes to the general public could face strong resistance.
Many conservative groups, for instance, are traditionally against leniency for law breakers. Understandable, but common sense alone should tell us that our present attempts at criminal rehabilitation aren’t working.
The purpose of locking up lawbreakers on the first place, (says the report’s authors) is to deliver punishment, promote public safety, and rehabilitation.
That criteria is wide open to case by case interpretation, isn’t it?
In an attempt to overcome such grey areas, state and federal legislatures have passed, and implemented, laws that impose standard sentences for specific crimes – thereby taking away judges freedom to sentence according to individual circumstances.
Well-intentioned, but mandatory sentencing is one of the reasons we’re running out of prison space. And, at annual housing costs per prisoner between $31,286 to over $60,000, we may wanna consider alternatives.
In a county with a little over 319 million people, we have about 2.3 million of them in prison. Looking only at these numbers, it’s easy to understand why people close to the situation are searching for ways to do a better job protecting society from our incorrigibles.
Other than promoting public awareness by publishing this missive about the simmering cauldron that is our penal system, I don’t have any answers.
Social change is complicated, that’s a fact.
Yet, perhaps it’s time we, as a benevolent society, be willing to explore bold rehabilitation methods that could change our prisons from ‘schools of crime’ into actual schools teaching skills that are in demand by today’s and tomorrow’s employers.
Leave you with one of my favorite songs: