America has the highest prison population in the world, but compared to other developed western countries, we are years behind on their criminal justice systems. The tough on crime philosophy of the 80s and early 90s, along with Nixon and Reagan’s war on drugs led to an administration that used prison as the first act instead of the last resort. There are many issues that need to be addressed about our criminal justice system, starting with our courts, where there are stark racial disparities in sentencing are present. In the prisons, the inmates are overcrowded, work for little to no compensation for the financial benefit of the government, and the use of solitary confinement deteriorates inmate’s mental health. Afterwards, they are unable to rejoin society as we deprive felons of their rights as citizens. America’s criminal justice system is fundamentally broken and racist and needs to change.
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One of the primary problems of our prison and criminal justice system are the policies, bills, laws, and acts that put people in prison and keep them there. The Anti-Drug Abuse act of 1986 was a law that was part of the Reagan’s War on Drugs. Amidst the 80’s crack epidemic, the ADAA sought to control or lessen the use of narcotics by punishing the users. The act would increase the mandatory minimum sentence for drug charges; the average time imprisoned for drug related crimes increased form 22 months to 33 months. The follow up ADAA of 1988 further increased the mandatory minimum sentence to 5 years and made it easier to keep repeat offenders back in prison. The goal of the ADAA was to reduce the amount of drug related crime, but the placing people in jail for longer periods had little long-term effect on drug related crime levels.
Another policy that contributed to the increase of inmates in American prisons is the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, the largest crime bill in the history of the united states. The bill sought to decrease the amount of violent crime with the most notable section being the federal assault weapons ban, which proposed ban pretty much all firearms. The other section of the act that would discourage inmates upon leaving prison is the part that does not allow former inmates to receive a Pell grant for higher education while they were incarcerated. The ADAA incarcerates people for unreasonable periods of time for some offenses, and the VCCLEA creates a cycle that discourages any change in former inmates to lead better lives and society will spit them back into the prison system.
One of the reasons for the cycle or loop to keep prisoners incarcerated is for extremely cheap labor and making money. There are many examples of penal labor in America, with the most notable being California’s firefighting inmates. They have recently received some attention and were seen as unlikely heroes, because of their effort in the Northern California wildfires of 2017. The nearly 4000 inmates fighting the fires were only being paid about $2 an hour; this is extremely low pay for a job that requires them to risk their lives. Firefighting, “the best-paying job available to inmates… save(s) the state of California as much as $100 million per year (Owen and Justus, 2017).”
A less glamorous example of penal labor took place in the mid to late 20th century in Mississippi on a for-profit plantation. Parchman Penitentiary inmates cultivated 21,000 acres of land for agriculture. The prison conditions were investigated under civil rights laws, when abuse of prisoners and harsh working conditions were exposed. The state was forced to abandon their for-profit penal labor system.
Similarly, Texas department of criminal justice’s labor system is also for profit, but in a more modern setting. It is the most profitable prison system in the country with a wide range of industries for prisoners to work in: livestock, agriculture, and manufacturing. The prisoners are not paid in money, but in good time credits which cuts down their prison sentences. The Texas department of criminal justice states that the prisoner’s free labor helps pay for their room and board and helps them develop inmates with skills necessary to gain and maintain employment once they are released. Inmates able to return them to society as changed human beings, with skills to financially maintain themselves, and the discipline to stay out of trouble. Some forms of rehabilitation seem to resemble a less dignified form of labor.
Louisiana state penitentiary runs a plantation where the prisoners receive no compensation. If they are deemed healthy by the prison’s doctor, they are forced to work under threat of punishment of solitary confinement. They are overseen by armed officers on horseback. The stench of slavery and racial oppression lingers in Angola, Louisiana. It is slavery reinvented. (Western and Beckett, 1999)
Racial injustice still exists today in America’s criminal justice system. Nixon and Reagan’s war on drugs campaign was believed to target African Americans. The Anti-Drug Abuse act of 1986 created a 100 to 1 sentencing disparity for the possession or trafficking of crack compared to powder cocaine; 5 years for 5 grams of crack and the same for 500 grams of powder cocaine. This was criticized to be widely discriminatory toward African Americans, who were more likely to use crack than powder cocaine. In 2012, Approximately 88% of imprisonments from crack cocaine were African American. Compared to heroin, Crack cocaine is sentenced more heavily than it. The average crack imprisonments ranged from 10 to 20 years, while heroin imprisonments (whose users are majority white) were only half that (Yellen, 1995). This leads to the question: is sentencing influenced by race?
Well according to the cases Iverson v Commonwealth, Rodney Reed v State of Texas, Zimmerman v Florida, etc. the answer would be yes. In the first case, Iverson v Commonwealth, Allen Iverson was charged with three counts of being a member of a mob with intent to maim. The case was handled poorly; they ignored significant evidence in the form of a video taken while the incident unfolded, and the defendant was tried as an adult at age 17. Allen Iverson was sentenced to 15 years in prison. In contrast, the infamous case of Zimmerman v Florida ends in a more unsatisfactory way. George Zimmerman was charged with second degree murder of Trayvon martin, who he racially profiled. The jury and the alternative jurors were majority white. He was acquitted and was deemed not guilty.
The degrees of the crimes are worlds apart; second degree murder usually gets someone 25 to life, while maiming will get you a minimum of only 5 years, which is much less than what Iverson was sentenced to.
Another two contrasting cases are Rodney Reed v State of Texas and the case of drunk driving 19-year old Ethan couch. Reed was sentence to death for abduction, rape, and first-degree murder. His trial was unjust with a biased jury and omitted critical evidence, such as a DNA test on the murder weapon, that would have proved his innocence. His execution was delayed because of overwhelming support from the public. Couch was sentenced to only two years for intoxicated/vehicular manslaughter. Many disagreed with Couch’s sentencing and made an argument about the double standard between rich and poor and black and white with one asking the question: “What is the likelihood if this was an African-American, inner-city kid that grew up in a violent neighborhood to a single mother… what is the likelihood that the judge would excuse his behavior and let him off because of how he was raised?” (Court of Appeals Virginia, 1995; Florida District Court of Appeals, 2013).
America’s prisons house 2.3 million inmates, the largest prison population in the world. Our country also has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Compared to other modern prison systems, like those in Europe and Canada, the United states is far behind. One very serious problem in this country’s prisons is the use of solitary confinement. Solitary confinement is a form of imprisonment that limits interaction with inmates and the outside world, with strict security measures.
America’s prison system is considered to be one of the most violent among modern western countries; inmates that are considered dangerous to themselves and others are placed in solitary confinement as a form of preventative punishment. Despite good intentions with the use of this type of imprisonment, inmates are usually kept here for extended periods of time. This leads to mental and health problems among inmates who have spent an extended amount of time in solitary confinement. Overcrowding in American prison’s is another issue that defines the country’s prison system.
As previously said, America has the largest prison population and the highest incarceration rate in the world. This leads to our country operating at over its capacity at 107.6%. Despite the fact that our country’s prison capacity is only in the middle of the pack in terms of prison capacity, it is still not as good as the country’s that some consider to be the role models in terms of prison modernity: Germany, Sweden, and Canada (102.2%) (BBC.co.uk, 2005).
Most European prison systems’ main goal is to rehabilitate inmates and return them to the world as functioning members of society; “Germany’s Prison Act even states “the sole aim of incarceration is to enable prisoners to lead a life of social responsibility free of crime upon release” (Fuchs, 2014).” From the previous contents of this essay, America’s prison system also has a similar goal, but the road to rehabilitation is full of detours.
As stated before, some prisons use work as a form of rehabilitation, and the country offers penal labor in many fields and industries despite the main goal of turning a profit for the government and the prison itself. America’s prisons also offer many other rehabilitation programs that do not involve penal labor and corrupt ways to financially benefit the prison. A popular program found in many prisons allows inmates to receive an education while serving their time. After finishing the program, they are awarded their GED. This is good, but the VCCLEA took away the right for former inmates to receive higher education with the Pell grant. This was overturned in 2015 with the Restoring Education and Learning act of 2015.
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Advocation for prison reform in America has existed since colonial times, when punishments were much more cruel and unusual. One of the most popular movements for criminal justice reform is the First Step act, introduced in 2018, by senator Sheldon Whitehouse. The bill focuses on inmate life during and after incarceration. Parts of the bill promise improved inmate activities and face to face interaction with their families by providing more programs that could help inmates improve their lives after incarceration, incentives to take said programs, and by having inmates held within 500 miles driving distance from their families.
Most parts of the bill aim to help inmates get released earlier from their sentences, use their experience from aforementioned programs to lead better lives, and help inmates integrate into society while reducing recidivism. This will be done by providing them with prerelease custody like home confinement, lowering the age for compassionate release from 65 to 60, and giving former inmates IDs to help them integrate into society quicker. The bill also has some financial benefits for our government, with a hypothetical savings of $60 million per year. (Whitehouse, 2018)
America’s current criminal justice system is in dire need of some change. Outdated policies still dictate and control this country’s criminal justice and prison system. A modern form of slavery has appeared in the form of for-profit penal labor. America’s prison system is known for its negative aspects like overcrowding, solitary confinement, and high rate of recidivism instead of its positive aspects. But, with criminal justice and prison reform, such as the Frist Step Act, there is hope for some change in the future for America’s current and former inmates.
Bruce Western and Katherine Beckett, "How Unregulated Is the U.S. Labor Market? The Penal System as a Labor Market Institution," American Journal of Sociology 104, no. 4 (January 1999): 1030-60. https://doi.org/10.1086/210135
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Ruiz-Hernández, José Antonio, et al. “Risk Factors for Intimate Partner Violence in Prison Inmates.” The European Journal of Psychology Applied to Legal Context, vol. 7, no. 1, 2015, pp. 41–49., doi:10.1016/j.ejpal.2014.11.003.
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