Critical Issues in the American Criminal Justice System - Sentencing Decisions and the Death Penalty

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Critical Issues in the American Criminal Justice System:
Sentencing Decisions and the Death Penalty

Richard W Ramsay

Dr. Allen Lowery
CJ 6624 – Court Administration
December 1, 2010


This paper discusses three critical issues in the criminal justice system. It touches on the general issues of punishment philosophies, sentence decision making, and prison overcrowding and focused more specifically on the negative effects of each. Highlighted in this informational paper is the interrelated nature of the issues; each issue affects and is affected by the others. Data and information has been gathered from the FBI Uniform Crime Report, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Amnesty International, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and other scholarly works. Amongst the information given here are the detrimental effects of under-funding in the correctional system, the link between overcrowding and recidivism, the relationship between overcrowding and inmate violence, the ancient and moral foundation of many punishment philosophies, and the shocking number of crimes committed each year. Be forewarned that this paper focuses on the negative aspects and offers nothing in the way of a solution to these critical issues.

Crime is an issue that every country must deal with on a daily basis and here in the United States of America that is especially true. According to the FBI Uniform Crime Reports, the U.S. had more than 11 million crimes committed in 2008 (Federal Bureau of Investigation [FBI], U.S. Department of Justice - Table 1, 2009); this is a far greater number of crimes than that of any other country in the world. When looking at prison statistics, the U.S. also ranks highest in both total prison population and prisoners per capita. The U.S. Department of Justice reported that over 2.3 million people were being held in custody in state or federal prisons or local jails (Bureau of Justice Statistics [BJS], U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs - Table 15, 2009). One can easily conclude, by simply browsing this data that something must be done to lower these crime rates, reduce our prison population, and deter future crime. This paper will discuss the various philosophies of punishment, the various types of sentences meted out, and the over-crowding of our prisons.

The United States criminal justice system relies on a variety of sentencing types and bases these sentences on several philosophies of punishment. For a person to understand the sentences meted out or for a judge to make a decision on how to sentence an offender, the philosophies behind punishment must first be studied. These philosophies of retribution, incapacitation, deterrence, rehabilitation, and reintegration vary greatly in where their focus lies and in what the reasoning behind the punishment should be (Territo, Halsted, & Bromley, 2004).

Retribution is the philosophy with the oldest roots, dating back to the early Babylonian and Hebrew civilizations. The basis for retribution lies in revenge, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”. “This philosophy can be traced back to ancient Babylonia in the Code of Hammurabi, one of the oldest written codifications of laws ever discovered” (Neubauer & Fradella, 2008, p. 372). This was later used in the Old Testament in the books of Exodus and Leviticus by the Hebrews. Retribution is focused primarily on past behavior and the idea that the punishment should fit the crime. The concept holds that an offender held no regard for the rights of other and should be held accountable for their actions. This concept focuses on crimes of a violent nature and is difficult to apply to crimes against property (Neubauer & Fradella, 2008).

Deterrence is used in hopes of preventing future crime. This theory was developed in the 19th century by Jeremy Bentham and based on the 18th century work of Cesare Beccaria. Bentham argued that it was against society’s best interests to punish...
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