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Criminal justice reform in America is a popular topic and many individuals are trying to improve the situation. However, it hasn’t always been a major issue in the United States. Today, approximately 2.2 million people are confined to the nation's prisons and jails, according to the Sentencing Project Organization.
The Root Cause of Increased Prison Populations
The United States prison population's dramatic rise is not a result of increases in crime. In fact, crime rates have dropped for reasons unrelated to the size of the prison population. In the last 30 years we have seen violent crime decrease significantly. Reasons suggested for these decreases include an improved economy, better policing as a result of advanced technology, lower demand for illegal substances, and changing demographics. As the average age of the U.S. population goes up, there is a corresponding decrease in crime.
Incarceration rates have increased due to a variety of policies and approaches that have resulted in more people being sentenced to prison and for longer prison terms. In many cases, the policies are exclusively focused on drug-related crime. In fact, as the arrest rate declined for all crimes over the past 30 years, the arrest rate for drug-related crimes almost doubled.
In an effort to address racial disparities in sentencing and to "get tough on crime," many jurisdictions adopted statutory sentencing standards and mandatory minimum sentences. During this period, controversial "three strikes" laws were passed, and sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole became widespread for violent crimes and drug crimes.
Unfortunately, by many metrics, this approach is failing to produce the desired effect.
Issues with Current Incarceration Methods
Although legislators have attempted to reduce crime and diminish disparate sentencing, the bottom line is that the current rates of incarceration and the impact of the prison experience are doing nothing to prevent future crime. In fact, the disruption to families and communities caused by current incarceration levels may be contributing to additional crime. For example, research shows that children with parents in prison have a more difficult time mastering academic and social skills.
One of the main drivers of recidivism is the obstacles returning citizens face once they have a criminal record. Employers and housing managers often do criminal background checks, excluding former offenders from jobs and living quarters. However, the primary cause of recidivism may be the jails and prisons themselves.
Offenders are offered very little in the way of educational opportunities, even though more than half of inmates are illiterate. There is a clear link between literacy and recidivism. Research indicates that when offenders have access to literacy services, recidivism drops to less than a fifth of former inmates. Programming for reintegration is limited, despite the overwhelming need that returning citizens have for job training, education, and assistance with securing housing and employment. Drug counseling and rehabilitation programs do not meet the needs of the population, and as opioid abuse grows, this issue is also likely to affect prison populations.
Making Profits from Mass Incarceration
Criminal justice reform is a complex issue for which there are no simple solutions. However, one method of addressing incarceration rates stands out as both simple and effective. Comprehensive drug rehabilitation services provided outside of a prison setting have the potential for reducing incarceration levels while simultaneously decreasing crime.
While there is bipartisan support for criminal justice reform, frequent roadblocks have prevented legislators from developing and passing a comprehensive solution to the current failed model. One of the biggest obstacles is overcoming pressure from the many businesses that profit from the prison industry. As with any industry, businesses that profit from a large prison population regularly lobby members of Congress. They pressure legislators to lengthen prison sentences and reduce services in an effort to ensure their profits are protected.
The model currently in use for criminal justice is simply not sustainable. Although solutions are complex and difficult to enact given corporate interests and public fears, most legislators understand that it is critical to study this issue carefully to find effective answers. Many organizations and associations are doing just that by gathering the data and research necessary to establish what works - and what doesn't.
Ready to learn more about criminal justice? In as little as two years, you could be ready to apply for employment in the criminal justice field. Daymar College's Associate degree in criminal justice is designed to teach you the fundamental knowledge needed to pursue a career in law enforcement, court administration, juvenile justice, corrections, loss prevention or victim assistance. For more information about our Criminal Justice program, please contact us today.