By Ashley Berry
Our prison system is one of the largest in the world, incarcerating roughly 25% of the world’s prisoners. This number is especially monstrous when one considers that the United States is only about 5% of the world’s population. It is time to rethink our vast prison system. With statistics as shocking as this, it’s clear that our current system is not working.
Twenty years ago, in effort to dissuade criminal offenders by creating lengthier sentences, Congress passed The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act which banned the manufacturing of assault weapons, increased states funding for the hire of police officers, built new prisons and expanded the scope of the death penalty.
With crime rates down significantly from the act’s passing in 1994, and the increased overpopulation of prisons with nonviolent offenders, many are left wondering if this law was too excessive in its approach and if these policies are still appropriate and effective.
“The judicial system has been a critical element in keeping violent criminals off the street, but now we’re stepping back, and I think it’s about time, to ask whether the dramatic increase in incarceration was warranted,” said Richard J. Durbin, a senator from Illinois.
While of course there are people who deserve to be in prison, there are many people who would benefit from rehabilitative programs. Currently, the excessive level of incarceration costs taxpayers about seventy million dollars a year and continues a recidivism rate of 67%, creating a vicious cycle that is nearly impossible to overcome.
The Journal of Children and Poverty states that 53% of prisoners made less than ten thousand dollars a year before their incarceration. A person living so far below the poverty line is more likely to commit a crime, as they have fewer ways of providing themselves with basic necessities in a legitimate manner. Poverty greatly limits the access to education and well-paying employment.
A correctional system that rehabilitates and is not exclusively punitive for nonviolent offenders would be more effective. Teaching prisoners a trade that they could use to serve their community in some way as a part of their sentence would have a long-term positive response on the community.
Those addicted to illegally obtained narcotic, are one type of criminal that are hurt by our systems harsh penalties. For example in Maine, if someone gets caught with any type of opiate (heroin or oxycodone), or methamphetamine they face up to a five-year jail sentence and up to a $5,000 fine. Incarcerating an addict, without providing a support system continues to set them up for failure. It would be better to fine the offender and sentence them to inpatient rehabilitation treatment for their addiction. Given the right tools to battle their addictions could ensure that those convicted do not end up being repeat offenders.
Of course, there will always be people who commit crimes regardless of the opportunities presented to them, as some addicts just will not overcome their addictions. This will never be something we can change completely. But, by changing the policies regarding incarceration and giving certain criminal offenders alternative sentences, it would be a start in the right direction.