By Melissa Boscarino
We send people to prison to be punished, to prevent them from more crime and to deter others from breaking the law. America has a habit of thinking prisoners are separate from society. After all, they are alienated from society with literal walls capped with wire and loaded guards watching their every move. Today’s prisoners are tomorrow’s neighbors. Corrections should be the most important piece of the incarceration process. Unfortunately, the US system believes it is more efficient to stay with current punishment guidelines.
In Hank Green's animated video, “Mass Incarceration in the US”, he paints a picture with facts. The US has about 4 percent of the world’s people, but about 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated people, giving the country the highest incarceration rate in the world. Over the last thirty years, that number has increased over 400 percent. Forty-one percent of those juveniles have been arrested before the age of 23 and children as young as 13-years-old have been sentenced to life. Solitary confinement increases instability and violence in inmates and is considered by international law to be torture, but in America, it is not regulated by anyone but prison officials.
According to the Sentencing Project, a website dedicated to research and advocacy for criminal justice reform, the majority of people who are currently under correctional control in the United States are generally from underprivileged neighborhoods mainly consisting of African-Americans and Latinos. Such persons suffer from the lack of basic services such as education and healthcare. They also suffer from high rates of unemployment and poverty because the justice system has made it intentionally hard for people who have a conviction on their record to receive jobs, not to mention receive welfare, student loans, public housing and many others. The results of which leave them with high rates of homelessness and suicide rates. After being released from prison, the vast majority of people return to the same neighborhoods where they have an increased chance of being sent straight back to prison.
Hank Green claims that this disciplinary and racially charged system increases injustice, damaging the legitimacy of the system itself. Not only does this put stress on the social and financial cost of the country but also produces a level of mass incarceration on a scale never before experienced. Some institutions are paying more than a $100,000 per year per capita and although long sentences have helped to decrease crime, no more than 25 percent of the decrease seen can be attributed to incarceration. This shortsighted policy is a 75 billion dollar failed experiment but its cost goes far beyond just money. The cost is to our country, to communities, to families and to ourselves.
According to the Bureau of Justice Assistance, Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) webpage, the culture of incarceration and “extreme” punishment has resisted most reform efforts. However these dynamics seem to be shifting. Almost every state has developed strategies to downsize correctional populations and budgets. Fiscal pressures are partially responsible for this change but other factors also come into play. The JRI has been the largest and most effective approach to improve public safety and reduce spending on corrections. Jurisdictions have begun to use justice reinvestment to create, put into use and adopt new policies that will reduce recidivism, impact populations of correctional facilities and help generate savings. The ultimate goal of this strategy is to decrease crime and strengthen neighborhoods.
Somewhere along the line we began to believe being tough on crime meant being tough on criminals, which is not the same thing. Punishment is only one piece of a much larger crime reduction pie.