The US prison system is exacting an increasingly heavy toll, both financial and human. Surging numbers of prisons hold more than 2 million inmates, giving the United States the highest rate of incarceration in the world.
Over the past few decades, the dominant criminal justice philosophy dropped rehabilitation in favor of sequestration and retribution. Opportunities for education, job training and drug treatment have fallen out of fashion. “Three strikes” and minimum sentencing laws have led to excessive punishments for millions of nonviolent offenders, especially in the misguided “war on drugs.”
Any assessment of the US prison system is incomplete without considering the prison-industrial complex, a network of private corporations with a direct interest in increasing the number of prisoners. Dovetailing with these interests are politicians exploiting tough-on-crime rhetoric that plays well at election time. The reality is that punitive incarceration policies are a relatively ineffective means of reducing crime, especially drug use.
Fortunately, many states are starting to recognize the system’s failure and experiment with rehabilitative programs such as job training and drug treatment. These programs are yielding impressive results in the form of reduced recidivism rates and taxpayer costs. But alternative solutions are in constant jeopardy because of the prevailing, federally driven ideology.
Prison Reform Talking Points
1. The conditions of prisons are inhumane.
In many prisons, inmates are victims of physical abuse and excessive disciplinary action. Overcrowding and double-bunking are widespread. At the same time, many “supermax” prisons subject inmates to prolonged isolation in tiny cells, which frequently fosters mental illness. Prisoners also tend to have inadequate access to physical and mental healthcare.
2. Prisons are “crime factories.”
Instead of curbing criminal tendencies, prisons encourage them. Violent and aggressive behavior is standard and even rewarded. It’s clear that time served in such conditions regularly creates violent criminals from nonviolent ones.
3. Recidivism rates are exceedingly high.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than two-thirds of released prisoners are re-arrested within three years. These figures underline the ineffectiveness of prison as a deterrent and a reformer. They also lead to a related criticism of prison trends: Increasingly, people are re-arrested on technical parole violations, such as missing an appointment with a parole officer, and returned to the system more quickly than in the past.