Criminal justice system in US is governed by the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Street Act of 1968; the criminal justice system comprises of all those range of institutions that are involved in prevention and control of crimes as well as criminal rehabilitation programs (Currie, 1998). As such it is made up of three major arms i.e. law enforcements, correctional institutions and judicial arm (Currie, 1998); in this paper we are going to discuss the second component of the criminal system namely the correctional institution. Thus, the purpose of this paper is to explore the challenges facing this particular institution, recommend solution and suggest ways of implementing these solutions.
US Prison System
United States is the leading country in the world with the highest number of persons incarcerated in jails and prisons; and also the leading country with the highest number of prisons, most of which have been built over the last few decades (Parenti, 1999). In United States, like many other countries worldwide, incarceration is the major method that is used as punishment for convicted persons besides probation.
By 2009, the total number of US federal prisons had exceeded the 115 mark, this is without counting the military prison facilities, state prison facilities and county jails among other forms of prisons that are usually outsourced by the governments from private companies (Parenti, 1999). Despite a general reduction in crime rate over the years, the United States prison system has continued to grow to be one of the most massive worldwide with a record 7.3 million incarcerated persons in 2008 which continues to rise every day (Parenti, 1999).
In fact, there is evidence that during the 1990 decade all forms of crimes that ranged from homicides to shoplifting reduced by 40% across all cities in the country in what later come to be known as the “Great American Crime Decline” (Elsner, 2006). In other cities such as New York which were prone to even high crime rates before this period, the drop in crime rate was even more dramatic and reduced by a whopping 75% (Elsner, 2006).
The question then becomes, why did the US prison system continue to rapidly expand at a time when crime rate was drastically reducing countrywide to become one of the most monstrous and costly not only in US but worldwide? Could it be because it was no longer serving its intended function of criminal rehabilitation since it had itself become the problem instead of the solution? This is the question that I want to briefly address in this paper.
Factors that Contributed to this Problem
Even by any other standards, United States prison system is one of the most efficient, organized and largest anywhere in the world; all the more reasons why it should be the leading country that is most successful in attaining the two main functions of prisons: correctional and deterrent to crime (Parenti, 1999). Rather United States seems to be the hub of crimes or rather a country where punitive laws are the policy either by design or default. In early 1980, the United State adopted new policies of punishing convicted persons that were generally a notch higher in terms of harshness which meant offenders were sentenced to longer prison terms on average for any convicted crime (Parenti, 1999).
In what is described as the “broken window theory” by James Wilson, the government adopted stiff laws for even the least of the crimes (Parenti, 1999).
At the time this approach was based on the school of thought that advocated for harsh penalties for lesser offenders in order to deter people from committing more serious crimes, in this policy many forms of drug related crimes carried lengthy imprisonment or life sentences. It is from this policy that we can trace the source of inefficiency in which the US system would later turn into. As a result by 2006, per capita incarceration rate in US stood at 737 persons for every 100,000, far higher than the average rates for most developed countries (Elsner, 2006). In fact the number of convicted persons in US at 2.2 million by this period was far much more than in China at 1.5 million prisoners with a population of 1 billion people (Elsner, 2006).
The other reason is that the United States legislations on prison terms and crimes in general were being positioned to be stiffer for all types of offenders. As a result the judiciary obtained the freewill that they needed to mete out long sentences for even less serious crimes. Currently more than half of all imprisoned persons in United States are first time offenders, most of whom are imprisoned for crimes that do not involve homicides or drug related (Slevin, 2006).
In a research study that sought to compare data on incarceration rates of various countries, United States was found to be six times more inclined to imprison any type of offender compared to other equally developed nations in Europe (Slevin, 2006). There are other factors such as economic problems and flawed policies on government spending that have contributed to this problem but this are the major ones.
There are three major approaches that the government should adopt as methods of reducing crime rates as well as strategies of decongesting the prison facilities: prevention, improvement of other social programs and policy shift of the current criminal justice system (Currie, 1998). Foremost, US should realign its current priority spending on its various sectors; current studies indicate that most States in US allocate significantly higher budget towards correctional services than in education. The implication is that crime rate would most likely go up when these young people grow without having benefited from quality education.
In addition, the government shouldn’t rely on the prison system to serve as the first line of defense as the only strategy of reducing crimes in US through deterrence. What the government needs to do is invest in other social programs and related institutions that are known to reduce the level of crime in the society.
There are four major approaches that have been proven to work as prevention methods against crimes both in the short term and long term: implementation of programs that prevents child neglect and abuse, enrollment of children in learning institutions, empowering vulnerable children and rehabilitation of juvenile offenders (Currie, 1998). For instance, the numbers of black persons imprisoned in United States are four times higher than those enrolled in college institutions (Henderson, 2010); it is thus plain clear that increased investment in education programs would reverse this trend and thereby reduce proportion of black people ending up in prison facilities by a similar factor hypothetically.
The only way to implement the above recommendations is by enacting laws that would achieve the necessary policy shift which will facilitate the required changes in the criminal judicial system as a whole and specifically within the prison system. In a nut shell the government should gradually start channeling funds towards the four core sectors that we have identified in the above section by improving the services of these institutions which are in these areas; education, juvenile rehabilitation programs, promotion of equal opportunities and child services. The idea is to invest on what can be referred as first line of crime prevention that targets youths at specific points in their life when they are most prone to adopt criminal behaviors that would later become difficult to change once they become hardened.
Currie, E. (1998). Crime and Punishment in America. Web.
Elsner, A. (2006). Gates of Injustice: The Crisis in America’s Prisons. Washington, DC: FT Press.
Henderson, C. (2010). Modern Prison System: Their organization and regulation in Various Countries of Europe and America. New York: Nabu Press.
Pendleton, C. (2009). How Does the US Prison System Work? Web.
Slevin, P. (2006). US Prison Study Faults System and the Public. The Washington Post. Web.