There is an ongoing debate in our country on many issues relating to our criminal justice system. One of the most popular debates is the question of whether society is really benefiting from the increased numbers of prisons, jails, and other facilities used to house those who are committing crimes. Most would agree that for those who have committed violent crimes, prisons and jails should most definitely be used, but what about for those who have committed nonviolent offenses or offenses involving drugs? In this paper I will discuss the issue of overcrowding in our prison system and what should be done with those offenders who have committed nonviolent crimes or crimes involving substance abuse. I will explore arguments pertaining to this topic, discuss my opinion and address the opinions of the authors from the textbook “American Government and Politics Today.”
According to the Social Research Journal for the Social Sciences entitled “Punishment: The U.S. Record,” the prison population in the United States has increased 650% since the 1970’s even though the crime rate has decreased (Mack 1). As of June 30, 2007 American prisons and jails were holding 2,299,116 inmates. In 2006 over 7.2 million adults in the U.S. were on probation, parole, or incarcerated in jail or prison. Some sources stated that at the beginning of 2008 for every 100 adults in the United States, 1 was incarcerated. Though the actual facts seem to vary a little bit between sources, it is shown that of those imprisoned, roughly 50% have committed violent offenses. That leaves around 1 million people imprisoned in this country for committing nonviolent crimes (“ Drug War Prisoner Count”). In comparison to the rest of the world the United States has the highest documented incarceration rate. While the U.S. has roughly 5% of the world’s population, it has almost 24% of the world’s prison population (“Incarceration in the United States” 1,5,6).
Is incarcerating so many people who have committed non-violent crimes benefiting our country or hurting it? There are numerous opinions on this issue. Those who believe that it does benefit our country state that building jails and prisons and incarcerating at current rates is a deterrent to others who may think about committing crimes as well as those who have committed crimes in the past. Another argument for the tougher laws that are sending non-violent offenders to jail and prison at record rates is that getting tougher in this country has led to a decrease in crime rates. Ilana Mercer, author of “Increased Incarceration Has Reduced Crime” says, “…states and the federal government began to get tough, ending early-release programs, limiting parole, passing ‘truth in sentencing’ and ‘three strikes’ laws to up the ante against violent and repeat offenders. The result? Crime rates have plunged across the board…” (Mercer 17). Another popular opinion for the continuation of harsher laws leading to higher incarceration rates is that imprisonment is a socially just punishment that brings justice to victims and makes communities safer. Another popular opinion is that the cost of maintaining and building correctional facilities and of housing inmates is warranted because the cost of crime far exceeds that of correctional costs.
Just as there are many opinions for the continuance of high incarceration and the building and maintaining of correctional facilities, there are many opponents and critics that too voice many opinions on these issues. One opinion is that the increased rate of incarceration has not reduced crime. According to Vince Beiser, in the article “Increased Incarceration Has Not Reduced Crime” every year incarceration rates have increased, however this is not true with the national crime rate. He says that the crime rate has fluctuated up and down in the last thirty years, but it definitely has not increased at the same rate as the incarceration rate. He also says, “Huge numbers of...
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