The US prison system is unlike any other in the whole world. Which is not meant as a compliment. The US is a nation of laws, which means punishment when you break those laws. Which means full prisons.
We’ve talked before about the private prison industrial complex, but let’s just talk about the government side of things today. A count by the US Department of Justice at the end of 2016 showed that the imprisonment rate was at a 10-year low, the lowest since 1997.
There are two main factors which have influenced the decline in imprisonment rates. First, the 10 states with the highest crime rates have seen a sharp decrease in the crime rate over the past 8-10 years. This data is very difficult to interpret, as it relies on many contributing factors to arrive at a real conclusion.
The next piece of data is not hard to interpret at all, however: many state governments have adopted a policy of NOT imprisoning non-violent drug offenders, and entering people into rehab and treatment programs instead of going to prison. Finally, the US prison system is learning something from the critics that have constantly berated the Department of Justice for simply imprisoning people instead of taking the time to treat them.
A Closer Look at Treatment Programs
California is perhaps the best example of how to deal with the prison system. Why? Because they undertook a massive prison reform around 2007 which had two goals: 1) to prioritize prison space for violent and repeat offenders and 2) to take the money that WOULD have been used on keeping non-violent and first-time offenders and using that for treatment programs and rehab for drug users.
These programs are often outsourced to private organizations that specialize in rehab and reintegrating people with society after their sentencing. These organizations include religious organizations and secular ones. The prisoners often have a choice if they want to take the religious route or not.
Prison System: Why is Crime Declining?
No matter how good your prison system reform efforts are, no single entity can claim that they reduced the crime rate. There are quite a few reason why crime has gone down quite a bit in the last few years. The first reason is controversial: many believe that better policing has helped stop the crime rates from rising much. There is much to be said about policing methods in the US, but we will not say it here. The next factor in lowering crime rates is thought to be the fact that crack cocaine epidemic is on the decline. This has led to far fewer drug-related fights and all the negativity that goes with it.
The third factor is the fact that people don’t really use cash anymore. Many people were held up because they used cash and carried cash on their person; this is becoming less and less common as people use electronic means of payment for the most part now. It’s simply not worth the risk of holding someone up anymore, as there is an increasingly smaller chance that they will even have something worth stealing. The fourth and last factor is connected; almost everything is theft-protected now. Cars are armed with alarms or won’t start without an electronic chip, phones require fingerprints to unlock, everywhere has cameras; the list goes on. It’s just not as easy to commit crimes now.
Mistakes from the Past
In the past, law enforcement believed that greater numbers of large prisons were the answer to lowering crime rates. Reality begged to differ; the crimes rates went up and the prisons got larger to hold them all. The lesson that most states have learned is prisons do not seem to have effects on the crime rates. The two are almost entirely disconnected. Creating fewer opportunities for theft and crime PLUS offering people who committed a crime a second chance (in the form of rehab) are the factors that really change crime.
Prisons are for people that are too dangerous to live in society at large; people like serial rapists, murderers, and dangerous, sane criminals. Joe Shmoe who did weed once at his buddy’s house does NOT count as a dangerous criminal, and more and more people are starting to understand that.
Will Trump’s Administration Help or Hurt?
It’s really hard to say, although “tough on crime” does not bode well for future incarceration rates. That sounds a lot like Bill Clinton in the 90’s trying to take people off the streets. Being tough on crime doesn’t really work unless you’re trying to reintegrate criminals with society. And that’s the real heart of the issue: most of the time, law enforcement seems more interested in punishing criminals to the fullest extent of the law, and then letting them stay in prison until they get out. Does that really seem logical that this person who has been in prison for 10 years is ready to get back into society?
Most logical people would say no. Trump’s administration would do well to remember the goal of law enforcement should be to make everyone safer; what’s safer than a former criminal who is truly sorry for what they did, and who has been educated and given a real job? Don’t be tough on crime; be tough on the truly dangerous and lethal crimes and leave other people more or less alone.
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