Imagine yourself in a dark place, a bottomless dark life driven by a sickness you don’t understand. Your decisions are no longer your own. Your life has spun out of control. You no longer think you, anyone, or anything in life is important. You hate the monster you have become, but you are too weak to fight it any longer. Now, imagine doing something irrational because of this illness and getting sentenced to life behind bars. It could have been something as small as shoplifting or something as serious as murder. The battle between society and its policymakers over punishment for these criminals pushes on as they continue to overfill our prisons with non-violent offenders. In the United States, over five million adults are under control of the criminal justice system, in either prison, both state and federal and probation or parole. Over 60% of these individuals are drug offenders, and 32.8% of those are first time offenders (Bureau of Prisons). Now look at the ongoing battle of the costs to keep that many offenders in prison and the cost to taxpayers. It costs $32,600 to house an inmate for one year in this country. That is a combined cost of $39 billion dollars a year that Americans are paying with their tax dollars (Bureau of Prisons). Another issue in our prison system is the punishment, its effectiveness and how we damage the individuals. There are many cases in which people are sent to prison that would be better helped by community service, rehab, probation or some other method of sentencing. Prison affects more than just the prisoner. It affects the families, friends, employers, environment or location near that prison and communities. Prison
consequently has its pros and cons for individuals that it may be necessary for. However, it can be damaging for those who would be better suited for other levels of punishment.
On January 2, 1996, Timothy Jackson stole a jacket from the Maison Blanche department store in New Orleans, he simply picked it up and walked out. When he was confronted by a security guard, Jackson said: “I just needed another jacket, man.” Several months later Jackson was sentenced for shoplifting and sent to Angola prison in Louisiana. That was 16 years ago in this article (Pilkington, 1). Based on a total cost of $32,000 per year, we have paid approximately $512,000 for his 16 years of incarceration. All for the theft of a jacket, worth $159. “It has been very hard for me,” Jackson wrote to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) as part of its new report on life without parole for non-violent offenders. “I know that for my crime I had to do some time, but a life sentence for a jacket valued at $159. I have met people here whose crimes are a lot badder with way less time.” (Pilkington, 1). The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU report, A Living Death, records thousands of lives and families ruined by the sentencing of people to die behind bars for non-violent wrongdoings. “I felt as though somebody had just taken the life out of my body,” Washington wrote to the ACLU about the moment he learned his fate. “I seriously felt rejected, neglected, stabbed right through my heart” (Pilkington, 1). The American prison system takes non-violent offenders and makes them live side-by-side with hardened criminals. No matter how people view the environment of prison, it is still damaging to most inmates. There are millions of people doing time for non-violent crimes and misdemeanors and it’s outrageous. Non-violent crimes such as theft or fraud should not be punishable with jail time, especially long sentences such as life in prison. A reasonably priced fine and probation, community service, house arrest, or even a few months in jail would be good enough for these offenders. The long-term sentencing needs to be reserved for violent criminals instead.
Firstly, prisons in America have a major issue of overcrowding, gangs and drugs. Herman Bianchi, a Dutch criminologist, has a new way for crime control that promises a much better way of doing business. He explains how our current justice system is set up and what can be done to help it become a more successful and effective system. Bianchi’s ideas would help fix our system. The outcome would help the victims and the offenders in resolving their conflicts rather than concentrating on their prison sentence. He states the thesis of Justice as Sanctuary, “…In light of the human incapacity to make final judgements in matters of right and wrong, interpretation of norms and values must be made in a never-ending and open process and discussion” (Bianchi). There should be no essential right or wrong way to do this. Developing a system with no set guidelines, and sentencing each crime differently based on the circumstances is a very hard way to accomplish things. However, if the system decreased the number of inmates who are sent to prison or jail or decreased the amount of time they spend in there, and we could display promising results in cost savings and overpopulated jails, then it would be a win-win situation. Today, more and more people are going to prison. America has up to five times more of its’ population in a prison or jail than any other nation in the world. This issue is not only harming our correctional system, it is also harming our economy and our country as well. Our criminal justice system deals with this issue in numerous ways. This includes transferring of prisoners and increasing the punishment of paroles and probations. However, our system is still giving some non-violent criminals life behind bars and sometimes still gives first time offenders a longer sentence than a third-time offender. “It’s really clear that the most effective way to turn a nonviolent person into a violent one is to send them to prison,” says Harvard University criminologist James Gilligan. Currently, we believe imprisoning non-violent offenders with felons and murderers will scare them and teach them a lesson, so they will not commit another crime. But the system doesn’t take into consideration that some individuals conform to and live the prison life. Some have been in prison most of their life, some find ways to get access to drugs and most gang members take over the prison from the inside.
Prison gangs are finding new members because it is a way of protecting themselves from other inmates. These gangs are violent and cause a lot of security issues for prison personnel. The gangs are involved in illegal activities related to drugs, gambling, murder, extortion, and prostitution. The system tries to find these members and separate them by using what they call “organizational segregation” for anyone thought to be affiliated with a gang. They try to assign gang members to different prison units or cell blocks, different work areas and sometimes even separate prisons. Regardless of these efforts, gangs and gang activities still flourish in all prisons. Having non-violent or first-time offenders associate with these types of gangs affects them and causes them to change in a bad way just to survive inside a prison. We are overpopulating our jails and prisons with people who need psychological help rather than imprisonment. It is easy to see that overcrowding is a serious problem in our prisons. There are lots of reasons for this overcrowding, and there are many people who are trying to solve this problem to control the issues that arise. Whether some want to believe it or not, overcrowding is a serious problem that we must all think about and look at because it is our money, to the tune of about $39 billion dollars a year, that is being wasted trying to support a justice system that is just simply not working.
Secondly, prisons affect not only the prisoner, it affects their families, friends, employers, environment and the community in which it is located. The Prison in Twelve Landscapes is a Kanopy documentary of a prison and its place – social, economic, and psychological. It focuses on the often-unseen influences that prisons have on communities, society and industries all around us. For children and communities, the impacts of a parent’s imprisonment are undoubtedly bad. Children whose parents go to jail are at increased risk of depression, anxiety, learning disabilities, obesity and more likely to do drugs or commit crimes later in life themselves. When the imprisoned parent does return home, they have trouble getting back into a routine, finding a job, and simply being a part of the kid’s life. Their relationship suffers.
Having an incarcerated family member affects multiple things, including economic hardships, family dynamics and emotional well-being. The distance and time apart can kill a relationship. According to recent estimates, nearly 3.6 million parents are under some form of correctional supervision. Of these parents, almost 1.1 million are imprisoned in federal, state or local jails. These parents have an estimated 2.3 million children (Mumola). It is important to understand the family living arrangements prior to incarceration and who looks after the children when parents go to prison. Children whose parent/s were imprisoned shows a statistical fact of developing mental and health issues. Prison affects people many ways. The affects can be short term or last for the rest of their lives. We should be thinking about the problems of incarceration and the children’s health and behavioral problems at the time of sentencing especially for non-violent offenders. “A large number of parents, especially fathers, are incarcerated for non-violent offenses affecting not only their life chances but the life chances of their children. This is certainly an unintended consequence of the prison boom” (Mumola). All families are harmed when the men or women of the families go to prison. Then readjusting to life after prison is also difficult. The inmates are at a very high risk of self-harm and violence once they are released. Getting out of jail can be miserable. Some offenders don’t know reality outside of prison. They feel scared, anxious and start from scratch. If they don’t have family or friends to support them, their options are limited. Most prisons have some sort of release programs like brief interviews, orientations to programs dealing with employment, drug use, and life skills. Programs that aid re-entry to life outside can begin in prisons and carry over into the outside community. Some focus only on the post release transition. Even after imprisonment, families do not heal completely. Friends and family members sometimes abandon the offender. The offender must gain privileges and visitations all over again. A prisoner’s incarceration has devastating effects on a family, especially the children and their mental health. Incarcerations, in short, changes your life and your family’s lives forever. No matter how innocent or guilty you are of the crime.
Thirdly, not everyone understands the numerous issues, strategies, methods, crimes, laws and criminal processes. The SOLON journal focuses on the examination of the ways the law punishes, identifies, and regulates what is identified as ‘offensive’ behavior thereby labeling these as a crime (Stevenson). Crime and punishment has made some tremendous changes since the early modern times. Criminal cases should receive punishment according to the severity of the crime. No matter what the crime, the debt to society should be paid. However, for minor crimes, jail time is not really cost effective and appropriate in most cases. A better punishment would be giving them community service or a reasonable fine to pay. For big time crimes, yes, jail is the answer for people that should not be on the streets. But who is the one to make that decision? Discretion is defined as the power or right to decide or act according to one’s own judgment. Elements of the criminal justice system such as law enforcement officers, prosecuting attorneys, judges, correctional officers, and probation officers are faced with discretionary decision making throughout the criminal justice process. The process begins with the decision to arrest by a law enforcement officer. Once the case is forwarded to the prosecuting attorney, multiple decisions are available to resolve the case. Once an agreement has been made between prosecuting attorneys and defense attorneys, then the judge gets to use his or her discretion to approve or deny the state’s recommended solution. They must decide guilt or innocence and issue sentencing based on judicial discretion and sentencing guidelines. Once a sentence has been imposed, correctional and probationary officers are responsible for overseeing and monitoring the recommended sentences. Every crime has a certain level of punishment, but below a certain level of crime, the judicial system should avoid punishment like prison and implement new punishments like social and ethical punishments which help other people. This is where community service comes into play. No one wants to commit a crime and go to jail. Many of them do commit crime only because of their circumstances. Regardless though, those crimes that affect more than one-person should be punished. By giving these low-level crimes less sentences, there would be less stress on
police, police stations, jails, and correctional officers. Different people have different thought processes. We should not think that everyone will change just because they are by punished. Before giving punishments, a judge should evaluate that person and understand what kind of person he is dealing with and judge based on the individual. Most offenders become more violent after going to jail and more dangerous by learning new techniques from other criminals and by increasing a bad friend group in jail. There are also alternative punishments to give rather than sentencing people to jail. The parole process is a restrictive release of an offender before his or her full term is finished, under court supervision, and with constructive behavioral requirements for freedom. Parole is geared to making those low-risk prisoners be able to live in the world again without problems. It works to keep more dangerous prisoners behind bars, but lets others out under supervision. If an offender were to break the law again while on parole or probation the courts can rescind the parole or probation of the offender with or without a new sentence. Some high-risk prisoners on parole “beat the odds” by remaining in the community through their first year without even a minor infraction. A lot of studies have been done investigating the variety of causes of prison returns. The first idea assumes that threatening offenders with a punishment of returning to prison will discourage them from offending again. Therefore, parole or probation and constant monitoring with the threat of returning to prison for even the slightest violation will deter those released from breaking any rules. A second main approach is rehabilitation. Most think that criminals are very changeable and can be transformed to behave accordingly. Preventing them from returning to prison after they have been rehabilitated. The third approach, also viewed as rehabilitative, is referred to as reentry, reintegration, or resettlement. According to this perspective, the primary reason people return to prison is not because they found the prospect insufficiently threatening, nor because they continued to be at risk of crime due to poor emotional regulation, ongoing drug use, criminal attitudes, criminal peers, and the like (SOLON journal).
Lastly, physical health, mental, emotional, and psychological problems are costly and are a huge problem in the prisoners and prisons today. The Prison Journal also talks about juveniles. It talks about their confinement and treatments and about what is being done to provide studies, ideas and discussions for them. Criminal Justice and Behavior discusses and examines the psychological and behavioral aspects of the juvenile and criminal justice systems. We should think of “criminal justice” and “behavior” in a way to include the entire process from violating the law, the victims, the level of the crime, right down to the treatment and deterrence. The journal also will include studies of both clientele and employees in the justice systems. It emphasizes reports of original empirical research, theoretical contributions, development and testing of innovative programs and practices, and critical reviews of literature or theory on central topics of criminal justice and behavior (Prison Journal). Jails and prisons are required to provide basic health care for inmates. The quality of this care varies drastically based on the inmate, the level of treatment needed and the ability to deliver that care. Prisons are more concerned in stabilizing an inmate with mental health issues rather than treating their condition. An inmate with anxiety or depression sometimes goes untreated while inmates experiencing hallucinations or psychosis might get medications to control the symptoms. Even for the most hardened criminals, prison can be a scary place. Depending on how long an inmate has been incarcerated, can determine how mentally or emotionally they have been affected. Prisoners are, by definition, cut off from the rest of society and their supportive friends and family are limited. Once released back into society, the mental and emotional issues they develop in prison can increase their risk of reoffending and make it difficult to reenter society as a productive, non-threatening citizen.
The sentencing process in America needs to be reviewed and revised based on the seriousness of the crime. If the crime is low-level with limited damage to others, like the Timothy Jackson case, why not think of another punishment such as community service or a
monetary fine instead of incarceration. This could prevent a long list of domino effects to several people, not just the offender. It could also save the local and federal governments billions of tax-payers dollars and solve the overcrowding issue in our prisons today.