The American prison system is in dire need of a fundamental transformation. This system built on mass incarceration is costly and ineffective.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, about 25% of the world’s prisoners are incarcerated in America, even though it hosts only 5% of the world’s population. Harsh sentencing practices such as long minimum sentences and harsh penalties for minor drug possession have filled up our prisons to populations that rise above those of Russia and China.
The US spends far more money imprisoning its citizens than educating them. The following gif compares the costs of educating a child vs the costs of housing a prisoner.
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Housing a prisoner costs roughly five times as much as educating a student in California, Washington and Utah. In dozens of other states, the cost of imprisoning someone is far more than double or triple the cost of educating a student.
If state budget trends reflect policy priorities, then the U.S. currently values prisoners over children. A report released by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows that the growth of state spending on prisons has far outpaced the growth of spending on education in recent years. “After adjusting for inflation, state general fund spending on prison-related expenses increased over 140 percent between 1986 and 2013. During the same period, state spending on K-12 education increased only 69 percent, while higher education saw an increase of less than six percent.”
In fact, since 2008, spending on education has declined in a majority of states.
In an interview with the Huffington Post, Michael Mitchell, a co-author of the report and a policy analyst with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, suggested that education spending could actually help lower incarceration rates. “When you look at prisoners, people who get sent to prison and their educational levels are typically much lower than individuals who are not sent to prison,” said Mitchell. “Being a high school dropout dramatically increases your likelihood of being sent to prison.” He added that those dollars spent locking people could’ve been dollars spent to provide pre-k slots or financial aid.
The report suggests that states’ spending practices are ultimately harming their economies, while not making the states especially safer. The authors of the report conclude that if “states were still spending the same amount on corrections as they did in the mid-1980s, adjusted for inflation, they would have about $28 billion more available each year for education and other productive investments.”
The U.S. incarceration system is basically an inversion of its education system. Although the public school system in this country is inherently flawed, children emerge with knowledge and skills that allow them to contribute more effectively to society. On the other hand, the harsh prison system systematically fails to rehabilitate its inmates. Nearly two-thirds of the inmates released every year return to prison. Those that manage to remain outside of it are often worse off than before they were incarcerated, as they face discrimination in housing, employment and political participation.
If more money were spent on sustaining an education system that met the needs of all of its students, maybe so much money wouldn’t be spent on putting people behind bars.
“The types of investments to help people out of poverty and break that school-to-prison pipeline are investments in early education, helping youth stay in school and getting them on college campuses,” said Mitchell.
The idea is simple and seemingly a truism: round up all the bad guys, lock ‘em up, and crime will go down. The American criminal justice system has obviously bought into this idea: current incarceration rates show that 5% of the American population will have been imprisoned at some point in their lives (bjs.gov).
The problem with this logic, and the prevailing criminal justice system, is that it is a fallacy. Mass incarceration, unequivocally, DOES NOT decrease crime or recidivism. In fact, the opposite is true.
There are two main reasons why the “Lock ‘Em Up” approach is such a colossal failure. First, that mass incarceration does not act as an effective deterrent to crime, and second, that imprisonment ruins life prospects and therefore increases recidivism rates.
The majority of people do not need a major deterrent not to commit crimes. People are social animals, and the drives for acceptance and social acceptance (in addition to morals) are more than an adequate barrier to an outsider life of crime. However, the majority of people begin their criminal careers between the ages of 15-25, when they are most impulsive and don’t think in the long term. Even if getting caught and a harsh sentence are highly likely, the mind set is often “It won’t happen to me”.
This issue is compounded by the fact that getting caught isn’t necessarily certain and that sentencing length is all over the map- a landmark study by Michigan professor Mueller-Smith showed that sentencing was highly dependent on what judge gets your case or how busy the courts are in a given period (quartz.com).
The second reason may truly be the root of why mass incarceration is such a tragically flawed policy. It ruins lives. Socially, economically and spiritually.
Take the case of Jay* (name changed), whom I know personally. Jay was the All-American hero growing up: Eagle Scout, active in his church, Co-Captain of the football team, and joined the Army Reserves after graduating high school. An avid outdoorsman, Jay had his fair share of extreme sports injuries and ended up getting prescribed Oxycontin for a particularly bad shoulder injury. Within 6 months he was addicted, and ended up turning to heroin when the Oxycontin became too expensive.
Like most drug addicts, Jay ended up in jail because of his addiction. He had never stolen or become violent: he was arrested trying to shoot up in a bathroom at the mall where he worked. Jay describes what happened when he woke up from his drug detox in jail:
“I realized I had a felony now- I was a felon. I had lost my right to vote, lost my job, lost pretty much everything. I knew I could handle jail; it was what my life would be like after I got out that terrified me. Who hires a felon? Who marries a felon? I felt my life sucked away from me.”
Jay would be branded a felon for life- unable to vote, unlikely to secure a good job despite his college degree and military service, no help for his addiction and generally looked at as a second-class citizen. All for a non-violent drug offense. That’s the true tragedy and failure of mass incarceration.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, one out of three American children live without their biological dad in the home. Consequently, there is a “father factor” in nearly all of the societal issues facing America today. We must realize there is a father absence crisis in America that is due to the injustice of drug related sentencing.
Youths in father-absent households still have significantly higher odds of incarceration than those in mother-father families. Youths who never had a father in the household experienced the highest odds! A 2002 Department of Justice survey of 7,000 inmates revealed that 39% of jail inmates lived in mother-only households. Approximately 46% of jail inmates in 2002 had a previously incarcerated family member. One-fifth experienced a father in prison or jail. What Americans needs to acknowledge is that “our” children are the future; and how we raise them is going to play a key role in the way our society will progress. Children of incarcerated parents are more likely to drop out of school, join in delinquency, and subsequently be incarcerated themselves.
- Official U.S. data shows that 63 percent of youth suicides (5 times the average), 70 percent of youths in state-operated institutions (9 times the average) and 85 percent of children with behavioral disorders (20 times the average) are from fatherless homes.
- Studies on parent-child relationships and child wellbeing show that father love is an important factor in predicting the social, emotional, and cognitive development and functioning of children and young adults.
- Daughters of single parents without a Father involved are 53% more likely to marry as teenagers, 711% more likely to have children as teenagers, 164% more likely to have a pre-marital birth and 92% more likely to get divorced themselves.
Our legislative system is creating generational problems for our society and the future of our nation. These children who are being raised with a parent incarcerated are not as stable as those who live in a two-parent household. These children need stability and need to have a healthy relationship with their parents, especially those incarcerated.
Knowing this we need to develop an alternative punishment for non-violent drug offenses. Such as reducing sentences for incarcerated people who participate in rehabilitation programs, expanding sealing and expungement criteria for some juvinelle offenses, and providing the possibility of parole for some offenses committed while a juvinelle.
Our legislation needs to be stronger and it should eliminate unfair mandatory minimums altogether. Our legislation should do more to eliminate punitive incarceration for children and opt instead for community-based rehabilitation. Our legislation is barely scratching the surface of what needs to be done, and there is much more to do.
There are an increasing number of senators that are working behind closed doors aiming to relax sentencing laws that are applicable to some of the country’s serious offenders. Moreover, the United States’ President, Barack Obama in June engaged in a week long issuance of commutations and making pro-reform speeches. These pro sentence reform movements have however been met with growing criticism. Following these developments, federal prosecutors have rallied their opposition towards sentencing reforms (Nelson, 2015). The last several decades have seen prison sentences take up a more significant role in the nation’s criminal justice system. Stringent policies on crime have led to the enactment of mandatory minimum laws and three strikes laws that put more emphasis on imprisonment for a wide variety of offenses. The sentence reform act is a highly controversial policy in the United States of America that aims to reduce a wide variety of federal mandatory minimum drug and gun sentences rendering the reductions retroactive; cause the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 to become retroactive; while intensifying the federal ‘safety valve’ exclusion for drug mandatory minimum sentences. Although the reforms are well intended, there are a wide range of issues plaguing these reforms, which should make citizens become apprehensive about the reforms and consequently say no to sentencing reforms.
One of the inherent issues with the sentencing reforms is based on its premise that demands the release of not just low level drug dealers but also thousands of hard core criminals. This premise is undeniably clear and cannot be concealed or denied. It is critical that the society appreciates the prepossessing fact that sentencing reform serve as the initial step towards the release of violent offenders on the streets. This has a consequent of increasing the level of violence: in essence, is this what American’s really need?
The act of reducing prison time for serious drug offenders and other violent criminals lacks any form of public support. Pro reformers have constantly avoided supporting any form of public poll on the issue. These groups understand that only an insignificant percentage of the society would support reduced sentencing for high level drug traffickers and violent criminals. Worse still, even the drug offenders who are already out in the streets would not support the early release of their counterparts as this would adversely affect their business in addition to posing a threat to their lives: Therefore, best not to ask.
The sky rocketing recidivism rate reported by various studies are a clear indication that shortening sentences will result into increased crime at a faster rate. There lacks a subtle way to state this fact, or an honest means of denying it. According to these statistics, 75% of released felons continue to engage in criminal activities. Therefore, by releasing the felons earlier, these individuals will return to crime earlier.
Mandatory minimum sentences are in addition considered necessary for tackling two significant issues facing the criminal justice system, which are: disparity in sentencing and unduly relaxed sentences. Mandatory minimum sentences are effective at ensuring that sentences are uniform within the entire federal system while at the same time guaranteeing that offenders are punished in accordance with their moral blameworthiness by connecting the punishment to the crime as opposed to the individual.
Sentencing reforms that are aimed at doing away with mandatory minimums and reducing prison sentences are ill advised and do not serve the good of the American society.
In July, Obama commuted the sentences of 46 drug offenders. 14 of them had been sentenced to life in prison for non-violent drug offenses. The president stated that, “…I’m determined to do my part wherever I can” to right the injustices of the criminal justice system.
Obama is trying to rectify a system that is deeply flawed in both it’s sentencing and the application of those sentences. The sad truth is that the poor and minority are disproportionately sentenced harshly by the current system, and those with economic or social means are able to escape the fate of their less fortunate citizens.
One of those granted clemency, Douglas Lindsay, is emblematic of those wronged by the system. Lindsay, an African American, poor army veteran, was convicted of a nonviolent drug crime (possession and intent to distribute crack) and was sentenced to life in prison. If Douglas had been white, wealthy, and caught with powder cocaine…well, he probably would have gotten probation with a good (read: expensive) lawyer.
“For 3,278 people, it was nonviolent offenses like stealing a $159 jacket or serving as a middleman in the sale of $10 of marijuana. An estimated 65% of them are Black. Many of them were struggling with mental illness, drug dependency or financial desperation when they committed their crimes. None of them will ever come home to their parents and children. And taxpayers are spending billions to keep them behind bars.”
The ACLU has published a report on the 3,278 people who are serving LIFE in prison for nonviolent offenses. Much of this is due to racial sentencing disparities. Whatever the cause, these thousands of nonviolent offenders are robbed of a life; because life in America’s violent, soul sucking corrections system is not really a life at all. Read the report here.
Vice’s Shane Smith asks President Obama, “Is the American Justice System Racist?” His response was shockingly honest.
Although taking a comedic approach to talking about mandatory minimums, Oliver goes into important detail about fixed prison prison sentences and why our system treats some offenders better than most low- level offenders.