The United States imprisons large numbers of people. Although the United States accounts for less than 5 percent of the world population, we account for nearly 25 percent of all world’s prisoners. From 1980 to 2008, the inmate population in the US quadrupled from 500,000 to 2.3 million, whereas the general population has grown approximately 40 percent, from 226 to 313 million. One in 100 American adults are imprisoned, and 1 in 32 are otherwise in the corrections system. It’s time to evaluate the issue of our failing criminal justice system, rather than passing off these alarming figures as a byproduct of (an imagined or real) disposition Americans have toward criminal behavior.
As statistics show, harsh prison sentences as a tactic for reforming criminals does not work. In fact, it is actually counter-productive; recidivism rates in most states show that two thirds of prisoners are arrested again for a crime 3 years after their release, and three quarters within 5 years of their release. The punitive nature of the criminal justice system is also explicitly racist – African Americans are six times more likely to be incarcerated than whites. This disparity exists even with crimes which blacks are, statistically, no more likely to commit than whites, such as drug use. It is only exacerbated by the fact that blacks often face harsher penalties, particularly longer imprisonment terms than whites for similar crimes.
When our criminal justice policies are both unfair and unjust, why do we keep them? Unfortunately, following the 1980’s “tough on crime” era, it has become political suicide for politicians to be tagged as “soft on crime”, regardless of the effects said “tough on crime” policies have had on crime rates and prisoner rehabilitation. Policies that lax punitive measures on criminals are quickly linked – with dubious or no evidence – to increasing or unchanging crime rates by political opponents, creating a visceral response in the public that those who approve of less harsh punitive measures are weak, incapable leaders.
As to be expected, the growth in prisoners has led to a rapid increase in prison constructions — many of which is being done in the private sector — a major contributor in the lobbying of growth in corrections spending and advocate for the building of more detention centers along with harsher sentencing for violent and nonviolent offenders alike. Just like the military-industrial complex, we have seen tremendous growths in public expenditure to fund new prisons, rather than the increased efficiency in spending we were promised by the inclusion of the private sector.
Fortunately, there is serious dialogue across the political spectrum about reform, for both economic and ethical reasons. Attorney General Eric Holder and congressional lawmakers have proposed reductions in mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders – especially nonviolent drug offenders – while maintaining minimums for violent offenders. These proposals also include suggestions of alternative sentencing for those charged with minor misdemeanors such as simple possession of controlled substances, which could include court-ordered drug treatment and community service programs. Such measures would allow judges more discretion in sentencing individuals, who often sentence nonviolent drug offenders to extreme sentences of 5, 10, 20+ years against their own will. President Obama has recently commuted sentences for 8 individuals sentenced unfairly to mandatory minimums for crack cocaine, (which are higher than those for powder cocaine), through the 1980’s and 1990’s. Concurrently, President Obama and Eric Holder are working on new rules that would give the president more authority to pardon and commute sentences of nonviolent drug offenders.
These changes are occurring at the state and local levels, as well as the federal level. New York State repealed many of it’s harsh Rockefeller Drug Laws in 2009, and in many local jurisdictions, simple possession of marijuana is no longer necessarily a crime, but rather a civil infraction.
Those opposed to ending draconian mandatory minimums and keeping as many people locked up for as long as possible argue that reforming the current system will spark a new wave of crime. However, when comparing our policies to other developed nations, we come to understand that no other country can find reason to justify such lengthy prison terms. Furthermore, these countries often see much less crime with their much briefer sentencing of criminals, and instead focus on rehabilitative, rather than punitive, measures to reform criminals.
It is important to reevaluate what looks — to many outsiders and many Americans themselves — like an American obsession with vengeance, which scapegoats prisoners as irreformable evildoers who must pay for the harms they’ve imposed on society. Instead, we must distinguish the truly malicious from those who have made lapses in judgment and are in need of rehabilitation over lengthy punishment and societal exile.