REFORM OF THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM
Updated: Jul 16
“If the prisons were opened tomorrow it wouldn’t make any difference. The fear of crime is a greater problem than the objective crime itself.” ~ Hans Mattick, Criminologist
The American Criminal Justice System holds more than 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 943 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,283 local jails and 79 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers and other prisons in the US. This represents 4.4% of the total US population, the highest percentage of any industrialized country. There is no unified prison system in the US. The system consists of 50 State Department of Correction agencies. These agencies are overseen by Governors and Mayors in the states, cities and regions of the country. To this mix you must also add the Federal System, which functions separate and apart from the state systems and the fact that as of 2017, 8.2% of these prisons are now privately run.
State and Federal prison population remained fairly stable through the early 1970’s until the war on drugs began with policies initiated by President Nixon. Since then the numbers have increased sharply each year, particularly when President Reagan expanded policies in the 1980’s. According to the Sentencing Project, in 1980 there were about 41,000 individuals incarcerated for drug offenses. By 2014 this number rose to 488,400, an increase greater than 1000 percent.
Seventy-four percent of people held in jail are not convicted of any crime! Every year, over 600,000 people enter prison gates, but people go to jail 10.6 million times each year. Jail churn is particularly high because most people in jails have not been convicted. Only a small number (about 160,000 on any given day) have been convicted, and are generally serving misdemeanors sentences under a year. At least 1 in 4 people who go to jail will be arrested again within the same year — often those dealing with poverty, mental illness, and substance use disorders, whose problems only worsen with incarceration.
In the “New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” Michelle Alexander writes, “During the 1970’s the federal government dramatically escalated its war on drugs. This alone lead to millions of people getting locked up for fairly - low level drug offenses, cursing the US prison population to spike.
The system of mass incarceration costs the government and families of justice-involved people at least $182 billion every year. We think this money could be put to much better use.
The system is built around the belief that crime is reduced by tough laws leading to incarceration. However, in the last few decades, the crime rate has decreased by 1% as the incarceration rate has increased by 20%, exhibiting very little correlation between crime and incarceration rates. We think the money could be put to much better use.
People who are incarcerated are only a fraction of those impacted by the criminal justice system. There are another 840,000 people on parole and a staggering 3.6 million people on probation. Many millions more have completed their sentences but are still living with a criminal record, a stigmatizing label that comes with collateral consequences such as barriers to employment, housing and voting.
It’s no surprise that people of color — who face much greater rates of poverty — are dramatically overrepresented in the nation’s prisons and jails. These racial disparities are particularly stark for Black Americans, who make up 40% of the incarcerated population despite representing only 13% of US residents. The same is true for women, whose incarceration rates have for decades risen faster than men’s, and who are often behind bars because of financial obstacles, such as an inability to pay bail. 2.7 million children are growing up in US households in which one or more parents are incarcerated. One in nine Black children has an incarcerated parent, compared to one in 28 Latino children and one in 57 white children.
The thinkers and writers in the field of mass incarceration are not in lock step regarding the cause. For instance, Professor John Pfaff at Fordham Law School, NYC, in his book "Locked in the True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve real Reform" postulates "It is not drug offences that are driving mass incarceration but violent ones".The system of mass incarceration costs the government and families of justice-involved people at least $182 billion every year. The system is built around the belief that crime is reduced by tough laws led to incarceration. However, in the last few decades, the crime rate has decreased by 1% as the incarceration rate has increased by 20%, exhibiting very little correlation between crime and incarceration rates. We think the money could be put to much better use.
However, both sides agree that something needs to be done to address this significant problem. The data seems to make clear that ending the war on drugs will not alone end mass incarceration though the federal government and some states have taken an important step by reducing the number of people incarcerated for drug offenses. Both causes should open up conversations about where we should focus our energies.
We need our state officials and prosecutors to rethink not just long sentences for drug offenses, but the reflexive, simplistic policymaking that has served to increase incarceration for violent offenses as well;
We want policymakers and the public to confront the second largest slice of the pie: the thousands of locally administered jails. We want state, county, and city governments to end money bail, without imposing unnecessary conditions, to lessen pretrial detention rates. We need leaders who will redirect public spending to smarter investments like community-based drug treatment and job training?
What is the role of the federal government in ending mass incarceration? Although the federal prison system is just a small slice of the total pie, the government can certainly use its power to incentivize and illuminate better paths forward. At the same time, how can elected sheriffs, district attorneys, and judges, who control the largest share of the pie, slow the flow of people into the criminal justice system? No new or private prisons should be financed.
Companies with the greatest impact on incarcerated people are not private prison operators, but service providers that contract with public facilities. We must put an end to contracts that squeeze money from people behind bars. We must push for reforms that both reduce the number of people incarcerated in the US and the racial and ethnic disparities therein.
We ask, does it make sense to lock up 2.3 million people in the US on any given day? Are legitimate social goals served by putting this many people behind bars and does any benefit really outweigh the social and fiscal costs?