The American criminal justice system holds almost 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 1,852 juvenile correctional facilities and 3,163 local jails (Wagner and Sawyer). America is by far the leader in people incarcerated into prison systems. There are another 840,000 people on parole and a staggering 3.7 million people on probation (Wagner and Sawyer). People look to America as the land of the free, yet we have so many of our citizens incarcerated and we need to look to the possibilities of why this is.
We can start by looking into the growth of juvenile crimes and the punishments behind them. “The divergence of trends of juvenile and adult violent crime in the last decade represents a potentially alarming development in the fight against crime. The rate at which juveniles were arrested for violent crime rose 79 percent between 1978 and 1993, almost three times the increase over that time period for adults (Levitt 1156).” Each state has different systems when dealing with juvenile and adult criminals but the age majority at which an individual may be tried at an adult court varies between 16 and 19 years of age. So, depending on the crime, a 16 year old teenager may be tried as an adult. “There are sharp changes in crime rates associated with the transition from the juvenile to the adult court. In the year following the attainment of the age of majority, states that punish adults particularly harshly relative to juveniles see violent crime rates fall by almost 25 percent and property crime 10-15 percent relative to states in which adult punishment are relatively lenient (Levitt 1181).”
This brings us to another factor we must look at when talking about over population in our prison systems. Are laws being created for more severe prison sentences? “One of the most significant trends in criminal justice is the growing emphasis on imprisonment. Legislators have continuously responded to constituent fears by establishing longer sentences or mandatory minimum sentences for wide varieties of crimes and criminals. As a result, United States prison populations have increased nearly 400% in the twenty-five years from 1968 to 1993 (Marvell 696).” According to Michael Tonry the Director of the Institute of Criminology at Cambridge University, “The large majorities often express the view that sentencing is too lenient, and that people demand that criminal punishment be made tougher. On this account, elected officials have merely respected the public will, and imprisonment rates have risen as a result (420).” In other terms, we look to punish criminals severely out of fear in the hopes that the criminal doesn’t repeat any crimes anytime soon. But maybe we’re right.
Overall, 67.8% of the 404,638 state prisoners released in 2005 in 30 states were arrested within 3 years of release, and 76.6% were arrested within 5 years of release (Durose et al. 1). Over three quarters of the prisoners released in 2005 in 30 states had been re-incarcerated back into our prison systems adding on top of all the new juvenile crimes being tried as adults. The statics show within 5 years of release, 84.1% of inmates who were age 24 or younger at release were arrested, compared to 78.6% of inmates 25 to 39 and 69.2% of those age 40 or older (Durose et al. 1). Most inmates are heading right back into prison within 5 years of their release and so we need to look to factors that might impact this.
“Among the 404,638 prisoners released in 30 states in 2005, 31.8% were in prison for a drug offense, 29.8% for a property offense, 25.7% for a violent offense, and 12.7% for a public order offense (Durose et al. 1).” It isn’t as simple to think all your problems will go away once you’re released from prison. You now have a criminal background which makes it much tougher to find jobs and pass background checks. It is these statistics that encourage repeat offenders such as drug dealers and thieves to go right back into their old habits. Some just looking to it as a means of survival knowing their odds of being arrested again were against them. “Drug arrests give residents of over-policed communities criminal records, which then reduce employment prospects and increase the likelihood of longer sentences for any future offenses (Wagner and Sawyer)”. It is not only you commit the crime you do the time. It is if you re-commit the crime you are now doing longer time. Just adding on to longer prison sentences in already over populated prison system. “More than 90 percent of prisoners are men, incarceration rates for blacks are about eight times higher than those for whites, and prison inmates average less than 12 years of completed schooling” (Petit and Western 151). Over the years research shows that prisons are filled not only with uneducated inmates but that most prisons are predominantly filled with black males. We can look at poor education in low income areas as a cause and effect and this can point towards why there is an increase in juvenile crimes.
Future politicians, Police officers, Correctional officers, Parole officers, Judges, Lawyers are just some of the many these over populated prison systems impact. We keep seeing growth in prisons and less in schools. We have more criminals incarcerated than any other country in the world and we don’t even hold the world’s largest population. We need to look at crimes and their punishments and install proper sentences and infrastructures to help rehabilitate prison inmates while being incarcerated and upon release. We need to target juvenile crimes at the source and figure punishments accordingly instead of preparing juveniles for prison. We must not keep building prisons to fill the beds, America must look deeper into its prison policies and laws and develop new methods to keep its citizens out of jails and committing repeat offenses.
Durose, Mathew et al. “Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 30 States in 2005: Patterns from 2005 to 2010”. Bureau of Justice Statistics. April 2014. NCJ 244205. Pp. 1-30.
Levitt, Steven, “Juvenile Crime and Punishment”. The Journal of Political Economy. Vol. 106, Issue 6, December 1998. Pp 1156-1185. JSTOR. http://pricetheory.uchicago.edu/levitt/Papers/LevittJuvenileCrimePunishment1998.pdf
Marvell, Thomas B. “Sentencing Guidelines and Prison Population Growth.” The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology. 1973, vol. 85, no. 3, 1995, pp. 696–709. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1144046.
Petit, Becky and Western Bruce. “Mass Imprisonment and the Life Course: Race and Class Inequality in U.S. Incarceration”. American Sociological Association. Vol. 69, No. 2 April 2004, pp. 151-169. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/3593082
Tonry, Michael. “Why Are U.S. Incarceration Rates So High?” Crime & Delinquency, Vol. 45, No. 4, October 1999. Pp. 419-437. https://uakron.edu/dotAsset/1662091.pdf
Wagner, Peter and Sawyer, Wendy. “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2018”. Prison Policy Initiative. March 2018. https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2018.html
English 010 3pm