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Reforming the U.S. Incarceration System


The United States incarceration system is fundamentally flawed. While advocating for reforms in the U.S. criminal justice system, Senator Jim Webb noted that despite the fact that the U.S. constitutes only 5% of the worlds total population, it has more than a quarter of the worlds total number of prisoners. As of 2014, according to a study by Munoz, there were nearly seven million individuals in federal, state, and county prisons or on probation or parole in the U.S. Comparing the U.S. to its peers, Gandy noted that a comparison made on the basis of incarceration rates shows that the U.S. rate is six to seven times higher than the rates of allies like the U.K., France, and Germany. There are thousands of the correctional facilities, from federal to county levels, located across the U.S. which is comparatively higher than in the U.K., China, and Australia which can be considered counterparts in this context. Such a large quantity of correctional facilities evidences the issue of hyper-incarceration. The analysis indicates that to aptly solve the hyper-incarceration problem, a more comprehensive and holistic approach that ranges from crime prevention interventions to offenders reformation has to be adopted.

For the most part of the 20th century, the U.S. had a model criminal justice system. However, since the 1970s, the system has become increasingly flawed, so the over-incarceration problem deteriorated further. In her podcast, Westall estimates that currently the prison population in the U.S., across its various correctional facilities, stands at 2.3 million. It represents a remarkable increment over the past three decades, considering that in 1970 the U.S. had a relatively small number of prisoners 300,000. While the population has doubled over the same stretch of time, the prison population has increased more than sevenfold which is highly disproportionate. Today, of every 100,000 people in the U.S., over 693 are in prison. This correlation is only bettered by Seychelles around the globe, but it still outperforms that index in Russia and China where incarceration is also considerably rampant. In the U.S., particularly, it has exacerbated social inequality through the unfair targeting of the racial minority and other marginalized groups such as the poor. Crutchfield et al., for instance, established that in each state in the U.S., the proportion of blacks incarcerated exceeded their representation in the general population. The disproportionate imprisonment evidences the disparate treatment of the different races which plays a significant role in exacerbating the hyper-incarceration problem. The system in its current state also disenfranchises many or otherwise disadvantages them, eternally blaming them for the mistakes they have already admitted and presumably rectified. This paper analyzes some of the key issues that plague the U.S. criminal justice system, which results in hyper-incarceration. It recommends how these issues should be addressed to create a new system that will be more effective as compared to the current one.

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Amend the Penal Code

The stringent penal code currently used in the U.S. is a major contributing factor to the hyper-incarceration crisis in the criminal justice system. It results in the incarceration of individuals who do not even warrant incarceration. The primary contributor is, undoubtedly, the war on drugs. Admittedly, the situation with growing, manufacture, sale, and use of illegal drugs in the U.S. is rampant and deserves radical actions. One of the interventions that the government has made as a deterrent measure is to legislate strict punitive laws. Gandy blames the skewed prosecutorial decisions as the primary contributors of this meteoric rise in incarceration in the U.S.. Accordingly, nearly 30% of the U.S. prison population is comprised of people convicted of drug offenses. What makes this problem avoidable is that nearly 60% of the individuals incarcerated for violating drug provisions had no history of violence. Webb further observes that four of five drug arrests are on virtue of possession and only 20% relates to sales. Given the over-incarceration issue, such apparent petty cases should not necessarily result in the incarceration.

To relax the penal code and consequently address the over-incarceration issue, guidelines such as the Three Strikes Laws and Truth in Sentencing should be abolished. Amending these laws, however, does not necessarily translate to an exacerbation in the crime rates. Countries such as Belgium and Sweden have criminal justice systems that do not prescribe strict punishments unless it is a grave crime, yet these countries have for long recorded considerably lower crime rates as compared to the U.S. An even closer and more relevant example is when the Obama administration instructed the federal prosecutors not to seek maximum penalties for non-violent drug offenders. This directive resulted in a modest reduction of around 10% in the U.S. prison population under the then attorney-general, Eric Holder. However, the criminal justice system, now under President Trumps administrations AG Jeff Sessions, has reverted to the harshest punishments the law allows in a new crusade against drug dealers. It is, therefore, not unlikely that the relaxation of the penal code coupled with other interventions such as drug rehabilitation incentives can make a significant contribution to addressing the issue of illegal drug sale and use in the society. The abovementioned especially concerns non-violent drug offenders who constitute a substantial part of the prison population. It is estimated that nearly half of the non-violent drug offenders that were given unnecessarily long sentences became repeat offenders who were incarcerated under the Three Strikes Laws. Between 2010 and 2015 when the administration relaxed some of these policies, hyper-incarceration in the U.S. dropped by 8% on average. Contrary to the widely-held expectations that such a move will prompt a surge in crime rates, it was actually accompanied by a 15% drop. Thus, when such stringent approaches are shelved, it is possible to record a drop in the crime rates, which means that the government just needs to find the right balance.

The Worst Offenders Incarceration

The best criminal justice systems in the world reserve physical detention for the worst criminal who can harm other members of society. According to this, in the U.S. one should incarcerate only the worst offenders; as currently constituted, it has its net cast unnecessarily wide. Consequently, there are people who are in prison for sentences that do not necessarily require the physical detention of a person in a correctional facility. This is uneconomical, because each additional prisoner represents an incremental sum of $31,000 per year to sustain them in jails. Therefore, due to this high cost of incarceration, prisons should be reserved for some of the worst offenders in the society, for example, murders and rapists. Other offenders such as burglars, petty drug offenders, and some of the white-collar crime convicts need not be placed physically restrained in correctional facilities to reduce the bulging prison population. The U.S. criminal justice system attempts to use non-incarceration alternatives such as community service, hanging sentences, and even probation to address the hyper-incarceration issue.

The fact that there is a substantial lot that has merely been remanded as their cases progress further exacerbates the already dire hyper-incarceration problem. It is estimated that upwards of 60% of the current prison population in the U.S. are yet to be convicted. For a fraction of the costs the government incurs to keep them in prisons, some of the remand population that is deemed not to be at a considerable flight risk can be fitted with monitors and released. Studies have shown that such strategies reduce the probability of re-offending by more than 70%; sitting around criminal elements in jail cells, on the other hand, accounts for a 10% increment in the probability of re-offending. American technological advancements make it possible to have full-time surveillance of offenders through installing GPS-enabled ankle bracelets and similar technologies to monitor offenders on parole or probation. Other tagging technologies can even recognize if a person is taking drugs. Many alternative tactics are, therefore, just as effective as incarceration, so the government should use them to effectively monitor offenders at considerably lower costs.

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Prisoner Rehabilitation

A further recommendation is that the government should ensure that various correctional facilities actually rehabilitate prisoners. Incarceration is not synonymous with rehabilitation. Merely detaining someone in a correctional facility does not guarantee his/her reformation. The prison administrations need to proactively engage in rehabilitating the prisoners to ensure that they do not reproduce the same person they detained when the imprisonment sentence elapses. The prison facilities should be the centers of correction and progress. The primary contributing factor to hyper-incarceration has always been high recidivism. Nearly 22% of those incarcerated are repeat offenders, which means that they did not reform. Thus, the punitive criminal justice system was not effective in deterring re-offending. While it is still necessary to incarcerate offenders, it is even more beneficial to prescribe interventions that would enable them to reform and become better persons in the society once released. Plain physical detention for years can hardly achieve that.

Crucially, various programs being initiated in prison settings should be accessible to the majority. Many programs have been established as, for instance, therapy, talent recognition, drug programs, and even educational programs; the problem is that they are only accessible to a few despite the compelling evidence of their effectiveness in reducing the recidivism rates. Studies, for example, show that only a few prisoners have access to the therapy, in particular cognitive behavioral therapy. Nevertheless, such counseling interventions greatly help to educate prisoners on how to avoid places, people, and situations that may prompt them to commit a crime. Such therapy tactics promote a reduction in recidivism by a considerable stretch and could significantly help to slash the U.S. $80 billion a year budget the U.S. allocates to sustain this humongous prison population.

To further reduce the recidivism rate, prisoners who have completed their sentences ought to be channeled back into the society. This remains one of the U.S. criminal justice systems major failings. Ordinarily, unless released under particular restrictive conditions, such as on parole, offenders who have fully served their time would be free to head wherever they want once they have exited the correctional facilities gates. Some of them find their own niche and become productive individuals; others have a hard time trying to adapt or finding means to gainfully engage themselves in the society due to their felony records and/or stigmatization. In the U.S., there are more than 27,000 state licensing rules that disadvantage felons in their quest to be gainfully employed. Such constraints only exacerbate the recidivism rates, since once the released offenders find it hard to secure employment opportunities, they are likely to revert to a life of crime to meet their needs. Some countries like Norway have considerably lower recidivism rates as compared with the U.S. despite the fact that it only incarcerates its worst offenders because of the rehabilitation programs and incentives its criminal justice system has. For instance, in Norway, prisoners can start their new jobs 18 months before their release date and continue to reintegrate into the society as they complete their sentences. This helps them adjust to the new surrounding when they are finally released, and it also helps to make them gainfully engaged in the society, thus reducing the chances of re-offending. Closer home, states such as Oregon that have instituted accountability measures to ascertain the effectiveness of the interventions meant to reform felons have recorded recidivism rates less than half as high as Californias.

Additionally, incentivizing employers to hire felons will also be a good step towards streamlining their rehabilitation and societal integration. Post-release employment, as noted earlier, can make the difference in recidivism rates. An unemployed ex-offender is 75% more likely to recidivate as compared to the one who has secured a steady employment. The government should popularize the incentives for employers to employ ex-offenders. Currently, for instance, there is the Work Opportunity Tax Credit Program that makes small businesses employing previously convicted persons eligible for up to U.S. $9000 in tax deductions and credits. More incentives such as reducing the payroll tax liability for such businesses can help absorb the ex-offenders, integrating them back into the society and reducing the recidivism rate.

Eliminate For-profit Private Prison Firms

A further recommendation to fix the prevailing over-incarceration problem is to eliminate the use of for-profit private prison firms. Such firms depend on the high incarceration rates to optimize their profitability. They do not pay particular attention to the welfare of the U.S residents; instead, they considered only the profit motive. They, therefore, thrive when there is chaos and high crime rates as they will be contracted to build more correctional facilities and manage them. In fact, the performance of such companies is ordinarily dependent on contractually guaranteed occupancy rates of upwards of 90%. Accordingly, these for-profit firms sometimes put much effort to ensure that the incarceration rates are as high as they could be. Over the past seven years, for instance, the Corrections Corporation of America has allocated over $1.2 billion every year to lobby for stringent and expansive crime laws. The implication is that they want the incarceration rates to increase so that they remain in business and make profits. The government should eliminate such firms and, instead, run the correctional facilities instead of privatizing them. It should prove to be even cheaper for the government since the costs it incurs to remunerate the private companies that run the prisons have the profit element factored in. With no motive to run the correctional facilities at full capacity, the government will not be compelled to legislate laws or enforce policies that exacerbate the incarceration rates.

Targeting Full Employment

Implementing policies to achieve full employment can also considerably decrease both the crime rates and recidivism rates. As indicated earlier, prior to the implementation of the radical reforms, the interventions must be holistic. One of the ways of actualizing that comprehensive approach is through addressing some of the reasons that exacerbate the crime rates in the neighborhood. The key one is high unemployment rate. A significant number of the incarcerated, at the time of their arrest, were living below the poverty line. Additionally, nearly 70% of those incarcerated were unemployed at the time of their apprehension. It is, thus, evident that the issue of unemployment in the formal labor market is a core influencing factor, since it substantially affects ones risk of imprisonment and, consequently, the incarceration rates in the United States. A further inference is that the system will be adjusted to target the poor and other marginalized members of the society, because they are incrementally susceptible to engaging in criminal activities. Enhancing the welfare of poor neighborhoods by addressing the employment needs can reduce the crime rates by about 40%, which will help to keep the locals out of jails and other correctional facilities. Making full employment a domestic policy goal should become a central strategy in addressing the hyper-incarceration issue.

Limit the Influence of Prison Gangs

Prison gangs significantly influence the recidivating rate by encouraging the professionalization of crimes. On the other hand, these gangs impede the rehabilitation progress the prisoners should have by teaching them multiple criminal activities. The implication is that the persons who belong to criminal gangs hardly experience any reforms and are more inclined to recidivate. A study by Winterdyk and Ruddell ascertained that prison gang members are three times more likely to re-offend once released as compared to the persons who did not engage in prison gang activities. Therefore, addressing the stranglehold the prison gangs have had on the correctional facilities can be crucial in reducing the recidivism rate. Naturally, one cannot prohibit the interaction of prisoners as that would constitute inhumane treatment. However, the prison authorities can adopt a system of reshuffling inmates, especially the ones that seem to feel comfortable in their environment and have started exercising undue influence on other inmates.


In summary, it is evident that the U.S. criminal justice system needs to implement radical reforms. Crucially, these reforms should not only be comprehensive but also holistic, ranging from interventions by the government and prison authorities to the members of the society. The first key reform is to amend the penal code to make it less stringent and institute alternative measures to reduce the incarceration rates instead. A further intervention is to only incarcerate the worst offenders in the society and to use other alternative means to dispense punitive, retributive, and restorative justice. A further intervention is to ensure that the correctional facilities do more than just physically restrain the offenders; they should actually rehabilitate them. They should leverage education programs, therapies, and other programs to achieve reforms and reduce recidivism rates. Other interventions that can improve the current system include eliminating for-profit private firms building and operating prisons, targeting full employment to reduce crime rates, incentivizing employers to ensure ex-offenders are gainfully employed upon release, and quashing prison gangs that inhibit reforms and enhance recidivism. If correctly implemented, this wide range of interventions will address the over-incarceration problem that is currently plaguing the U.S. criminal justice system.

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