July 15, 2024

How The US Justice System Turns Jaywalkers Into Violent Criminals

The fact that the United States imprisons more of its citizens than any other nation on earth has been previously discussed – see United States – A Nation of Criminals.


There are approximately 2.3 million Americans in jail, equivalent to 1 out of every 100 Americans.  America has in its jails almost 25% of the entire prison population in the world, yet we represent only 5% of the world’s population.   Sentencing for similar crimes in other nations results in much smaller prison sentences.

The increase in jail sentences has skyrocketed since the mid 1970’s when America was more in line with the rest of the world,  imprisoning only around 110 people per 100,000.   What would be considered a mild crime in another country, such as writing a bad check, results in prison time in the United States.

Jail time for drug use has grown with “get tough” drug policies which have done nothing to discourage rampant drug abuse.  A record total of 7.2 million people in 2007 were either in jail, on parole or on probation.   Black males in the 20 to 39 age group represented a third of all people incarcerated.  Convicted criminals lose the right to vote which further alienates them from society.

A more enlightened attitude towards imposing harsh jail sentences on non violent offenders is now being considered by some as a smarter way to deal with crime.

After decades of supercharged incarceration rates, our bloated prison system is straining under its own weight, and policy makers are finally being forced to deal with the need to shrink it.

According to a study last year by The Pew Center on the States entitled “One in 100: Behind bars in America 2008,” the prison population of the United States has nearly quadrupled over the last 25 years while the nation’s population has grown by less than a third.

This comes at a cost. According to a report published last month by the Vera Institute of Justice, an independent, nonprofit research group, $1 in every $15 from states’ general funds is now spent on corrections. That doesn’t work in a recession.

Much of the rise in the prison population was because of draconian mandatory sentencing laws that are illogical — sociologically and economically.

On the sociological side, as the criminal justice expert Joel Dvoskin of the University of Arizona explained to me, data overwhelmingly support the idea that locking up low-risk, nonviolent offenders makes them worse, not better.

A study from a decade ago that was published in the journal American Psychologist put it this way: “Department of corrections data show that about a fourth of those initially imprisoned for nonviolent crimes are sentenced a second time for committing a violent offense. Whatever else it reflects, this pattern highlights the possibility that prison serves to transmit violent habits and values rather than to reduce them.”

There are encouraging signs that policy makers are moving in the right direction. Many states have moved to repeal mandatory minimums, and there is a bill in Congress to repeal federal mandatory sentencing. Furthermore, Attorney General Eric Holder seems to be thinking about this issue the right way. Speaking to the American Bar Association last week, he said, “There is no doubt that we must be tough on crime. But we must also commit ourselves to being smart on crime. … We need to adopt what works.”

If imprisoning 1 out of every 100 Americans had resulted in virtually eliminating crime, our current policies would make a lot of sense.  Since our current policy has not eliminated crime but in fact is probably producing more violent criminals, a serious look at reforming the system is needed.  Many violent criminals certainly belong in jail, some even deserve capital punishment but the current system seems to have spun out of control with negative consequences for all involved.  An in depth review of mandatory sentences and alternatives to prison time for non violent offenders seems long overdue.

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