“Tougher on crime” seems to be the siren call of politicians and the media as the solution to reducing the high crime rates in the United States. Our American criminal justice system, though “tough on crime” with its retributive justice model, has been ineffective in reducing these high crime rates. While many of those who have wronged others do get locked up and punished for their actions, a big issue the criminal justice system faces is recidivism. Recidivism, the act of relapsing into a previous criminal mindset and state, has long affected many individuals who go through the American justice system. A criminal justice system built with the notion of simply “locking up” as many criminals as it can is far from sufficient for the state of today’s society. Our criminal justice system does not place enough emphasis on rehabilitation and what comes after one finishes serving one’s sentence. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than thirty-seven percent of prisoners who were arrested and released within five years were arrested within the first six months after their release and more than fifty-seven percent were arrested by the end of the first year (Cooper, Durose, and Snyder 1). Clearly, the American criminal justice system falls short in its rehabilitative efforts.
In a sense, rehabilitation should provide the necessary tools to help restore a prisoner into a state of mind that would enable them to be productive individuals upon reentry into society. However, prisoners upon release face countless barriers, as a result of poor rehabilitative services, when trying to reenter as well-functioning members of society and incurring high societal costs when they fail. These prisoners are often ill equipped to work and make a life for themselves in society once they are released. They often return to communities that contain persistent poverty, lack of jobs, limited access to drug or alcohol treatment, lack of access to health care, and lack of affordable housing. Hence, the American criminal justice system becomes a significant contributor to the problem of homelessness and increasing the size of the prison population. Yet, there have been numerous studies pointing to the importance that rehabilitation programs have on prisoners and how the rate of recidivism could surely be decreased from these programs; therefore, implying the positive correlation and importance between these two factors.
Although many critics argue that the American criminal justice system should be strictly one that is punitive, it needs to shift to a system more focused on restorative justice, a model that works to bring the offender back into the community rather than completely push him or her into exile. Thus, the American criminal justice system needs to place more emphasis on rehabilitative programs that educate and advise inmates on how to improve and better themselves to become productive members of society prior to reentry, while also enabling the early release of non-violent elderly citizens in order to prevent overfilled prisons and lower the recidivism rate within the United States.
To begin with, long prison sentences do not necessarily act as a deterrent to crimes. Instead of focusing on how to prevent recidivism, the United States has been increasing “the severity of punishment for criminal offenses” and thus, “leading to swelling prison populations, increasing mandatory minimum sentencing policies, and having one of the highest incarceration rates in the western world (Berenji, Chou, and Orsogna 2).” The approach the United States has taken is one that focuses on punitive instead of the rehabilitation of prisoners. By taking a different avenue on how to improve and help these prisoners, the United States has a higher potential in lowering the amount of individuals who commit crimes after their release upon prison; therefore, creating a more productive society with lesser crime and reducing the amount of taxpayer money spent on keeping these individuals in prison. Furthermore, there has been evidence shown that “social intervention and support combined with punishment and coercion have been shown to be effective in preventing crime (Berenji, Chou, and Orsogna 2).” In a sense, United States’ prisons create an environment of fear and punishment for prisoners, without providing much tools needed for success upon reentry into society. However, if the United States were to foster an environment of both support and punishment, the likelihood of better results from ex-prisoners should be much higher than what it is today.
The issue of recidivism is not just a “prison problem” but also a societal problem. When these inmates get released from prisons without any help or aid, the country is merely brushing off the problem as opposed to actually solving it. The community puts trust into these ex-convicts when they are released, and if these individuals commit crimes again, they are not only affecting themselves but the surrounding community. Recidivism affects all of us, because we jeopardize the public’s safety by not taking heed to this problem; but, merely burying the issue by creating more monetary, societal, and property damages as a result of not dealing with released ex-convicts. The issue of recidivism can affect the community by creating “economic strain, psychological and emotional distress, and social stigma” that is placed on loved ones, while also causing prisoners to “endure isolation from their family and the community (Deady 2).” When one is isolated from his or her family and community, a sense of distrust and anger can be developed as a result, which may lead an individual to recommit crimes in order to return to a place that they know best – prison. Therefore, if society does not stress the importance of recidivism and why it is an imperative problem to solve, we are merely only causing inmates to “leave prison worse off than when they arrived, which can be detrimental to communities and society as a whole (Deady 3).” As a result, in order to prevent issues stemming from recidivism, we need to understand that it is an important our society is facing.
Evidence has shown that prison programs have helped reduce the recidivism rate in our nation. An example of this program is called “Prison University Project (PUP)” that is provided to the San Quentin prison as an extension site of Patten University. This program enables students to receive an Associate of Arts degree while providing over 20 courses a semester that includes college math and English. With the studies provided by the 2012 CDCR Outcome Evaluation Report, it has shown that only 5.4 percent of those “who graduated from the PUP program and earned an associate’s degree prior to releasing from prison had a one-year recidivism” which goes to show the effectiveness of providing an education program for inmates (California 65).” By providing the tools of education for prison inmates, the United States can break an intergenerational cycle of crimes by becoming role models to their children. In addition, rather than sending an uneducated convict out of prison at the end of his or her term, the ex-convict will have had the necessary tools and education to hopefully secure a job upon release. Although an argument can be made that convicts should not receive free education when many others in society cannot afford to even get educated because of crippling debt, a prisoner by the name of Jerome Boone has offered his insight that ‘“if we come in here and just stay the people we are when we come in” and “without any growth or insight or any opportunity to better ourselves,” then “we’re going to get our of prison that same person (Westervelt 1).”’ If such individuals believe that partaking these programs will help them succeed in becoming a better person upon returning to society, then why should we not continually fund and encourage inmates to participate in these programs. In doing so, the United States will see that “every dollar” spent “on higher education in prison” yields “an 18 dollar return” on investment; thus, proving that providing education to prisoners is beneficial to both the country and economy by reducing the need to spend money on keeping inmates in there (Fleischer 1). These claims question whether or not the United States is doing much to provide the necessary care and resources in ensuring that its prisoners do not recommit the same crime again in the future. Programs like the Prison University Project at San Quentin are neither state nor federally funded, but have shown its effectiveness in lowering recidivism rates in the country. Likewise, it has been able to lower the overfilling of prison populations as a result of ex-inmates securing jobs post release as a result of their degree. Yet, the United States has not been placing more emphasis in investing more into programs such as this.
Although internal prison programs have proven to help prisoners rehabilitate, policy makers and opponents think otherwise. Despite what research has demonstrated about the benefits of these college programs, under the administration of Bill Clinton, the United States passed the “Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act” in 1994, an act that took the United States several steps back just as it took a step forward. This act states that “No basic grant shall be awarded under this subpart to any individual who is incarcerated in any Federal or State penal institution,” which overturned the Higher Education Act of 1965 that allowed the Pell Grant for postsecondary education (Keeping 28). Therefore, effectively ending a lot of college and vocational programs in college. Prior to the 1994 bill, in 1990, “there had been several hundred college programs in prison,” but nearly every program had disappeared afterwards (Keeping 30). By preventing prisoners within the United States from receiving federal funding for education behind bars, there is not much option left except to rely on volunteer and donations from the local community or different organization. Yet, even then, there is not enough capital to support such funding before the budget becomes exhausted. Although lawmakers may have believed that this bill passed in 1994 helped the overall country, there was not quite enough information research regarding the “knowledge about the relationship between education and recidivism.” In 1997, after the bill had been passed, there was a study conducted that “focused on 3,200 prisoners in Maryland, Minnesota, and Ohio,” which showed that “simply attending school behind bars reduced the likelihood of incarceration by twenty-nine percent (Keeping 38).” Furthermore, in 2000, there was research done by “the Texas Department of Education” that conducted a study in which “883 men and women who earned college degrees while incarcerated” had only a “27.2 percent recidivism rate for AA degree” and “7.8 percent for completion of a BA degree” in comparison to a “system-wide recidivism rate between 40 and 43 percent (Keeping 38).” These studies have shown that by preventing inmates from receiving an education while in prison, the United States government has pursued the antithesis of what the country should have done, which is to promote education amongst the inmates to possibly lower the recidivism rate. As a result, reaffirming how by providing the tools of education to these prison inmates, the United States can start create a solution to the issue of overcrowding and crime rate within our society. Furthermore, the stigma that stems from being a criminal alone is already enough to thwart success once a convict is released, regardless of his/her intellectual skills or abilities. Education in jail gives the inmate a fighting chance and sets up the inmate for successfully serving as an upstanding member of society (Spearit 15). Changing laws and rules in regards to crime can help overcome the problem of our justice system being a punitive one.
In relation to providing the necessary education to prisoners to survive this current century, some prisons with job and vocational training have shown success in lowering recidivism rate. According to Professor Maltz of the University of Illinois at Chicago, “lack of education and job related skills affect the propensity of an individual to resort to crime” which shows the need for job training in prison to lower the rate of recidivism and to prepare these individuals for the workforce. There are couple programs within the United States that have shown a proven model to prevent recidivism and create a more productive workforce. One such job-training program is the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP) led in part by Baylor University in Texas. This program serves as a “new crime reduction model,” while also attempting to unlock “the human potential through entrepreneurial passion” that starts when inmates are incarcerated until their release and afterwards by continuing to “provide services to participants (Johnson, Wubbenhorst, and Schroeder 9).” This program takes into the account of the skills that many prisoners may have developed through drug dealing and illegal business crimes, but channeling them to create legitimate businesses upon release. By creating a job training setting in which prisoners can somewhat use the skills they have developed illegitimately, they will be better prepared for success in the workforce after release. This model has proven to work by having “fewer than five percent of the PEP graduates released in good standing in 2008 recidivated within three years (Johnson, Wubbenhorst, and Schroeder 12).” Furthermore, what is astonishing is that “Pep found that 95% of its graduates reported being employed (Johnson, Wubbenhorst, and Schroeder 19).” Although the sample size may have been small, this shows the great potential that these programs have in the fight to reduce recidivism. By providing more job training to these inmates, society may have more peace of mind by knowing these inmates are creating legitimate business or working rather than partaking in crimes as a result of having no abilities post release. The placement of ex-inmates into the workforce with jobs would enable our society to be more productive, while also lessening the cost that we incur keeping these individuals within this system.
Furthermore, in providing job training for inmates during incarceration, early release for certain elderly prisoners convicted of nonviolent offenses are necessary to decrease the prison population in the United Sates. The United States’ current practice of continuing to house these nonviolent elderly offenders may soon prove unsustainable if meaningful action is not taken by the U.S. government to reform its guidelines for housing prisoners. Costs of housing nonviolent offenders is not the only reason why the United States needs to move away from its reliance on incarceration – “the continued long-term incarceration of aging citizens has serious moral, ethical, public health, and public safety implications” (Osborne 25). The current aging prison population has continued to rise at an alarming rate. From 1995-2010, the overall prison population has grown 42% while the aging population “increased by 282%” with “no signs of slowing down” (Osborne 28). This large growth for the aging population demonstrates the unsustainability of the United States’ current practice in continuing to house nonviolent elderly offenders of crime. Today, there are an “estimated 246,600 prisoners age 50 or older in the United States” (Osborne 30).
By securing early release for elderly and older prisoners, the United States can look to save money. For these 246,600 prisoners, the United States spends over $16 billion annually – an amount more than the entire Department of Energy budgets or the Department of Education funds for school improvements (Osborne 25). Clearly, the United States is not wisely allocating its resources. The current amount the United States is spending on the aging population in prison also includes money towards providing medical care for these individuals. In addition to paying for the costs of medical care, something already very expensive, the government must also make sure to provide security watch for each of the prisoners when they are sent out for treatment. This security usually costs about $2,000 per 24 hours the prisoners are sent out for their medical treatment (Osborne 25). Not only is the United States spending far too much on an aging population of nonviolent offenders, but also once these elderly offenders are released, they may have trouble being highly productive members of society. If someone is aged due to the long years they have spent in prison, they are worn out and because they are 50 or older, they will have trouble finding jobs that will hire them. Not only does continuing to house the prison population waste fiscal resources for the United States, it also negatively “ripple outward to affect individuals, families, communities, and social structures in ways that are less immediately tangible” (Osborne 32). Keeping these aging individuals who have committed nonviolent crimes will only leave the nation in insurmountable national debt that can be lowered if the nation were to ensure their earlier release. In addition, instead of using our resources to keep these nonviolent prisoners behind bars, we can allocate those resources to criminal offenders who need it more and have committed more atrocious crimes.
Some opponents to the rehabilitative model have argued that there are no hard facts or evidence to prove that this has a positive effect on the society around us. Instead of believing that the human mind can be rehabilitated from past problems and crimes in order to create a better society, these opponents argue those who are acquitted of any crime regardless of a petty or big one, should strictly be punished and nothing more. California’s Three Strikes Law is an example of brutal punishment such as when a man who stole a pair of $2.50 tube socks at the mall was unfortunately sentenced to life in prison (Taibbi 1). The law should no doubt punish individuals who have committed a crime, but instead of just being brutally punished, they should receive the necessary help that these lawmakers and opponents have longed wanted to forbid them from getting, while also receiving a fair sentence. According to Smart Justice, the idea of “longer sentences are supported on the basis that they deter crime by sending a message to offenders” but there have been studies that have shown “harsher prison sentences don’t deter crime and can increase reoffending (Smart 2).” Therefore, the thought of sending a message by the supporters of harsh punishments and punitive models should be reconsidered in a different light. If inmates are going to recommit crimes, why should we not approach this situation in a different method? This argument against those in favor of a punitive system is not one where society as whole abolishes punishing offenders, but rather offering the needed guidance and support to help create a better society.
There is a quote that some of us like to live by, “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.” Yet, however, the prison system has clearly shown itself to be a broken system that is unsustainable. With the overfill of prison population, there are numerous resources and money being dumped into keeping a system that is not sustainable for the long haul. If we continue on this path in punishing prisoners instead of giving them the necessary help, we are merely only taking two steps forward to go five steps backwards. There have been numerous studies that have shown what benefits society can incur from enabling these inmates to receive the necessary rehabilitative services. Instead of continuing on this broken path and method of dealing with prisoners, we must do our best to promote more educational and job training to these inmates to lower the prison population and decrease recidivism. Education and job training has only began to show its potential to help rehabilitate prisoners, but without the necessary federal funding, donations and volunteering can only help to a certain point. By changing the current punitive path we are on and choosing to rehabilitative route, not only will we save money as a society, but also we are creating a better society by helping those who have made mistakes to be better individuals. In order to fix what is clearly a damaged system, we need to take the necessary steps to begin mending the current state of the system that has long been ineffective within our society.
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