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America's reliance on incarceration and what
you can do about it
During the last twenty years, the United States prison
system has fallen into a cruel era of social vengeance, unlike any other in our nation's
history. While crime rates rose and fell, our rate of incarceration skyrocketed at
unprecedented rates. We now imprison our
citizens at 6-10 times the rate of most other industrialized countries. In fact, we have
the worlds highest rate of imprisonment.
Although criminals should be taken off the
streets, incarceration isn't always an effective way to prevent crimes
Does it control crime?
many supporters of the rising incarceration rate will tell you imprisonment is necessary to control
crime, the reality is that the relationship between incarceration and crime remains
inconsistent. States that have greatly increased their incarceration rates have not had a
larger drop in crime rates than states that have not. Further, while incarceration
increased continuously from 1985-1995, crime rates rose from 1985 to 1991 and then
declined from 1991 to 1995.
incarceration rates may in fact work adversely against crime. Prisoners face horrible
conditions such as inadequate medical care, abuse by guards, rodent infestation and lack
of rehabilitation programs. They are often raped and condoms are not available,
AIDS. These conditions, coupled with an environment of criminal peers, often make
prisoners more violent than when they went in.
Back on the street
Then, after receiving little
treatment or guidance within prison, ex-cons are released to the street with only a few
dollars in their pockets. These individuals have not only lost precious time to build a
career, family and friends but also face the stigma of being ex-cons. As a
result, it is not surprising that more than 60% of people released from prison commit a crime
after being released.
Further, a large majority of
prisoners are not the "violent predators" we are conditioned to believe.
70% of prisoners are locked up for non-violent crimes, most for drug crimes or low level
property crimes. While many prisoners only need drug or alcohol counseling or help finding
jobs, our government opts to flex its muscles by throwing these people in prison.
programs cost far less - and are more effective - than prison.
Prison usually has a long-term affect on a
person and may hinder them of leading a normal lifestyle even if they've
changed in positive ways.
Most prisoners' living environments lead to few options
in life. The majority come from poverty-stricken neighborhoods that suffer from
inadequate education, unemployment, broken families, social isolation and other factors
that make criminal activity more likely. Unfortunately, prison does absolutely nothing to
these root causes of crime.
Largely a result of the War on
Drugs, America's incarceration policies have disproportionately impacted minorities,
particularly African Americans. While African Americans constitute only 13% of drug users,
they represent 74% of those sentenced to prison for drug possession. The horrifying result
has been that one in three black men between the ages of 20 and 29 is under some form of
criminal justice control.
The economics of the situation are
also quite frightening. The cost of incarceration in the year 2000 was more
than $40 billion.
Sending someone to prison for a year costs more than sending a person to Harvard for a
year, more than $35,000. Speaking of education, while prison spending increased 571.4% over
the last 20 years, education spending rose only 33.4%, forcing many to question our
Effective crime prevention
There are many crime prevention
alternatives that are more efficient, humane, fair and effective than imprisonment. Such
alternatives include counseling, drug rehabilitation, education, job training and victim
restitution. Because our government has chosen incarceration as its foremost crime
prevention strategy, most of these programs are being implemented only on the community
One such program is the Community
Justice Project. The CJP works with courts to provide community service, education and
employment opportunities for offenders, parolees and individuals on probation. CJP has not
only shown a significant decrease in the recidivism rate of its participants, but has also
used these offenders to give back to the community.
are more geared towards punishing people instead of rehabilitating them
Another organization, the Victim
Offender Mediation Association, is just one of many community groups working toward
implementing the ideals of restorative justice. Unlike incarceration, restorative justice
attempts to repair the harm caused by the crime and reintegrate the offender back into
society. Restorative justice has had great success in reducing recidivism rates of property
offenders in Australia and continues to gain support worldwide.
What you can do
Many organizations work for
compassionate and efficient crime prevention. There are many things that you can do to
help them, from lobbying for reform to working directly with individuals in prison or
recently released offenders in safe and effective programs. They greatly need your
support, and trust me, the difference you make in other peoples' lives is
beyond your imagination. So please take action now.
Links for Prison Reform
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by Matt Haney, Hearts & Minds
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http://www.heartsandminds.org/articles/prisons.htm - latest
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June 5, 2008