Posts tagged ‘sentencing’

March 8, 2011

Mass Imprisonment in the United States

Mass Imprisonment in the United States
By Maria
There are 9.8 million people held in penal institutions throughout the world. About half of them are in three countries: the United States, Russia and China. The United States has not only the highest prison population in the whole world but also the highest number of prisoners, 756 per 100,000 of the national population, making for almost 2.3 million people in the U.S. prisons and jails .
The second country with mass incarceration problem is the Russian Federation with 629 prisoners per 100,000 of the national population. This data appears odd taking into account how these two countries are different when it comes to human rights issues. The United States is a country where people value freedom more than in any other country. It is the world’s leader and supporter of human rights, including, ironically, prisoners’ rights. The United States is also a country that entered into a civil war because of slavery and initiated historic changes toward equality among people worldwide. However, nowadays blacks are twice as likely as whites to be unemployed and are, at the same time, seven times more likely to be incarcerated.
Russian Federation is a country which is notorious for serious civil and human rights violations, where individual freedoms are considered inferior to state interests. The conditions in prisons are so dire that the penalty of imprisonment sometimes equals the death penalty.
It seems that these two countries have not much in common when it comes to democracy or criminal policy. There are, however, certain similarities that can be detected. For example, frequent use of criminal law to solve social problems coupled with high penalties. Another element in common is a similar attitude toward judicial independence. In the United States, judges are chosen in democratic election or appointed by political figures. However, there are a substantial number of citizens, usually black from the lower social classes, who have lost their right to vote due to a prior conviction, constituting only 3% of the voting-age population but 8.4% of voting-age population of blacks. In 14 states the share of blacks denied their right to vote exceeds 10% and in 5 states 20% .
There are very rare occasions that a right to vote is denied to a member of upper social class. Judges usually belong to the upper social group and therefore will be representing interests of the upper social class. Moreover, judges have to behave like politicians and thus support penal policy popular in the society. In Russia and former Soviet countries like Belarus or Kazakhstan it is similar. The judges there are dependent upon political authorities and their positions are contingent upon subordinating their decision to the government agenda .
On the other hand, Canada has only 116 prisoners per 100,000 of the national population. The United States and Canada are close to each other physically and also socially, having a similar language, outlook on life, and religion. They also have a similar attitude toward individual freedom. It is striking how these two countries are so similar and yet adopt such different solutions when dealing with criminal prosecution.
The reasons why the penal policy in many countries tends to be punitive is the politicization of the discourse and decision making. The expert opinions are not taken into account in shaping the policy. Instead the policy is shaped by public opinion, which usually favors punitive attitudes. Society believes often that not being ruthless to criminals means not being fair to victims. Additionally, judges and prosecutors often have criminal law education but lack education regarding the social realities of the sanctions that they impose and their consequent effects. The topic of mass incarceration, for this reason, must be included in public discourse, and the people in society should be educated about the reality of penal institutions.
Another main reason why prisons are filled beyond capacity in many counties is the war on drugs. All countries with punitive drug policies are ranked the highest in the prison population survey (United States, Russia, China, Brazil, Mexico, Caribbean countries). Yet, these approaches of raising the penalties for drug use have failed to reduce demand. Drug addicts and dealers are usually members of lower social class and have an inconsequential impact on penal policy. The powerlessness of the lower class in effecting penal policy is most evident in the crack versus powder cocaine sentencing disparity.
The imprisonment penalty is often criticized for its ineffectiveness and huge economic costs. It is also criticized as inhumane and anachronistic penalty. It is ineffective in counteracting crime and preventing reentry. The prison is turning minor offenders into hardened criminals. Every new conviction raises the recidivism rate. Prisons are sometimes referred as “factories of criminals” and “universities of crime”. Ironically, the aim of this institution should be counteraction of crime.
The United States spends an estimated $60 billion each year on corrections. Cost varies from state to state. In 2005, the average cost of incarceration per prisoner in the United States was $23,876. That comes out to an astounding $65.41 per day . The prison industry is flourishing.
It is however not the economical costs that matter most but the social ones. Ex-prisoners are alienated from the society. Not only prisoners but also members of their families are victims of the mass incarceration. 10% of black children have incarcerated fathers. Furthermore, conviction causes the financial status of families to deteriorate. Ex-convicts face discrimination when trying to find a job , their professional contacts are lost, and their former social place in society is lost.
(Important public health issues are also connected with imprisonment. Mass imprisonment exacerbates the HIV epidemic. The prison medical healthcare is poor and no harm reduction services are available. The large incarceration of those who use drugs is the principal factor behind the high proportion of drug users in prisons when compared to the general population. Risk behaviors connected with using drugs in prisons raise concerns about the further spread of infectious diseases. The level of hepatitis B and C viruses and HIV among prison populations tends to be higher than in the populations outside prisons. HIV is usually acquired by contaminated injection equipment, but not only by injecting drugs but also by injecting anabolic steroids. Blood transmitted viruses might are acquired through rape or consensual sexual relations, fighting, tattooing, or the sharing of toiletries.)
Other detrimental public health aspect of the imprisonment penalty is its impact on the prisoners’ mental health. The conditions in the penal institutions are not adequate for basic psychological and physical wellbeing. A prisoner is dehumanized and deprived of basic human needs which servers to exacerbate mental deficiencies and antisocial behaviors. Clinical studies have shown that imprisonment can have devastating effects and may lead to a ‘psycho-syndrome’ (Sykes syndrome) which includes a loss of memory, clouding of comprehension, apathy, infantile regressions, hopelessness and the appearance of various psychotic characteristics such as obsession and major depression.
Imprisonment penalization is a deep-rooted concept within society that derives from the idea of punishing wrongdoing. It serves as revenge for the committed harm, and it aims to impose a pain on the perpetrator in the amount that the society believes that he or she deserves. The reason of making this suffering a basis of the legal system lies in a belief that the suffering deters from committing further crimes.
High imprisonment penalties do not deter. Higher penalties might deter only in an extreme example such as the death penalty sentenced for tax fraud. The punishment is imposed far later than the actual committing of the crime for it to deter through proper punishment. It was not mass imprisonment in U.S. that reduced the crime rate but rather a causality that was global. The reduction in the crime rate was a world-wide trend. More importantly, this is a complicated social phenomenon which is never linked with just one factor.
Imprisonment penalty serves as a mean of incapacitation. It isolates the criminals from the society. Rape, murder, and robbery, though, account for only 8% of felonies, while drug related crimes account for a 33%. There is also a substantial number of incarcerated mentally ill people as well as harmless immigrants, and both groups have not committed any crime. In 2008, there were 30,000 immigrants in detention. Among them were asylum seekers, survivors of torture, victims of human trafficking, and small children. Immigrants are detained alongside individuals incarcerated for criminal offenses and are often put in excessive restraints, including handcuffs, belly chains, and leg restraints. Immigrants can be detained for months or even years without any form of meaningful case review of whether their detention is necessary. Moreover, immigrants are denied basic rights granted in criminal proceedings such as the access to free legal counsel ..
Incarceration imposed on small children, immigrants, and the mentally ill must be reconsidered and reevaluated. Furthermore, criminal law should not be used to solve social problems such as drug addiction. Instead of pumping money into the prison industry, the money should be used toward education, job training, healthcare, affordable housing, and other social services that, in the long term, effectively reduce the criminal rate.
The legal solutions to mass imprisonment should be implemented on three levels – on the legislative level, law adaptation level, and law execution level. On the legislative level, it should be recognized that imprisonment penalties should only be used as a measure of last resort. On this level belongs depenalization, decriminalization, and decarceration, with the overall goal of changing the criminal policy so that it is less punitive. For example, the renunciation of the three strikes law, mandatory minimum sentences, and the depenalization of the possession of small amount of “soft” drugs or simply treating it as an administrative delict and not criminal offense.
On the law adaptation level, alternatives to imprisonment penalty should be used more often to deal with mass imprisonment problem, such as bond, community service, restitution, mediations, negotiations, probation, therapy, drug courts, and other adaptations of civil proceedings into criminal process. There should be a reduction of the time served in prisons, especially for those who do not pose a societal threat, a reduction of the length of probation and parole supervision, and an elimination of imprisonment for technical violations of parole and probation such as for missing an appointment.
On the execution level, it is possible to decrease mass incarceration through suspended sentences, mass pardons, conditional releases, electronic monitoring, weekend prisons, etc.
To conclude, 2.3 million people in U.S. prisons and jails bespeaks a policy problem. The U.S. government is a role model for many admiring governments. The U.S. policies toward crime pose a particularly hazardous example for the rest of the world to follow. As the leader in many areas of the global community, the U.S. must reform its policy not only for its own sake but also for the sake of others. American solutions in the criminological issues are being imitated across the world. Just only one hundred years ago criminologists from many countries were astonished at the humane treatment of prisoners in U.S., and this contributed to the development of humane penal systems in other countries. Today, politicians in many countries look up to America for ideas on solving criminal problems. If foreign governments increase their criminal penal system in imitation of the U.S., the effects would be disastrous as the number of incarcerations would rise to astounding proportions. There are currently 9.8 million people incarcerated worldwide with 2.4 million in the US. That has 4% of the world population. It is frightening to consider the possibility of American criminal justice policy being adopted worldwide.