Prison and the Alternatives: Is Incarceration the Answer to Crime?
How well do our prisons reform prisoners? What are the alternatives to prison? What is the best, most cost-effective way of protecting the public? These are some of the questions raised by individuals who are legitimately concerned not only with where their tax dollars are going, but also with what is being done to break the cycle of crime within their representative communities. When prisons were first introduced to our society in 1790, the idea of rehabilitation as an alternative to corporal or spiritual punishment was adopted and the belief that if inmates were forced to examine their conduct in confinement, repentance and religious conversion could occur. David Cayley, a reporter for the CBS show Ideas, summarizes the reasons we jail people today:
In theory, we send people to prison for two reasons: first, to teach them to behave peaceably in society; secondly, to keep criminals out of sight and mind. The justice system has moved closer to the second purpose. A difficulty with sending most of those that commit offenses to prison is that it intensifies problems over the long-term because prison "dehabilitates" inmates (qtd. in Lawrence 8).
As a society, we expect these bleak, brutal facilities to correct our criminals. In fact, prisons are more likely of doing the opposite. In the words of the United Kingdom's Home Secretary, Douglas Hurd, "Prisons are an expensive way of making bad people worse" (qtd. in Anderson 5). Late 1997 statistics show rates of recidivism of 60% or more for released prisoners (Lawrence10). This statistic clearly proves that incarcerating offenders is an ineffective method of solving today's crime problems. David Cayley comments, "Rates of recidivism everywhere testify to the fact that those who go to prison will often go more than once" (qtd. in Lawrence 10).
From 1850 to 1973, the incarceration rate in the United States remained stable at approximately 100 inmates per 100,000 population. Since 1973, the United States' incarceration rate has skyrocketed to 645 inmates per 100,000 population, representing the second highest incarceration rate of any industrialized nation, falling just behind Russia (Lawrence 4). According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, since 1992, prison population in the United States has grown at an average annual rate of 9 percent. By mid-year 1997, the United States prison and jail population reached 1,725,842 people, more than triple the number of inmates housed in 1980. At the current pace of incarceration, the national inmate population will surpass the two million mark by the year 2000 (Corrections Compendium 22).
For the last few years, research conducted by the Department of Justice and the United States Sentencing Commission has shown that over 20% of the inmates in federal prison are low-level offenders who pose no threat to society. Incarcerating these low-level offenders is extremely costly, and it wastes prison space. An individual incarcerated in a federal prison today costs the taxpayer $24,783 per year (Corrections Compendium 23). These offenders could undergo corrections and punishment under an alternative program in place of incarceration.
The current rate of incarceration in the United States is out of control. As a nation, we must replace incarceration with alternative methods. In our current state of government downsizing, it is of the utmost importance for policy makers to develop a criminal justice plan that is both successful and cost effective while continuing to remain vigilant against crime. Research and reform, if actively implemented, will modify our defective justice system. Put simply by Judge Heino Lilles, "The justice system isn't a system at all" (qtd. in Lawrence 5).
One proven alternative to imprisonment is the federal probation and pretrial services system.
This system uses local punishment and community corrections to provide a successful and...
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