Prisoners of Habit: The Case for Criminal Justice Reform

Abby Tootell ’17 – Women in Leadership

In a country that promotes such high standards of living for its citizens, our prison system has proven itself to be counteractive to American culture. Prisons are designed to house convicted criminals in order to protect society from the potential threat of the inmates as well as give them opportunities to reconstruct their lives, through education, drug-treatment, and other occupational programs. In fact, inmate efforts produce nearly 100% of all US military helmets, ammunition belts, bullet-proof vests, ID tags, and other clothing and equipment for soldiers. However, since 1980, there have been two dangerous trends in the prison industry that have jeopardized the goals of the correctional system; overcrowding and privatization as well as required American’s immediate attention.

There are nearly two million inmates in federal, state, and private prisons across the country. This represents a 50% increase in federal inmates since 2000 and an 800% increase since 1980, putting the federal prison system at 30% above capacity at the expense of inmates.  Associated problems with this overcrowding include double- and even triple-bunking as well as increased inmate-to-staff ratios, both of which are associated with prison violence, risking the safety of both inmates and security officers. Furthermore, with each incident of misconduct comes increases in the sentences of involved inmates, cyclically contributing to the overcrowding problem. Reconstructive programs, including those related to education, drug treatment, and work experience, have become limited and even turned to wait lists to control overwhelming demand. Without these important programs, inmates are not as able to make changes in their lives and develop personally so as to be productive members of society when they are released, defeating one of the two purposes of prison sentences. In terms of the other goal of incarceration, protecting the public, former Attorney General Eric Holder has gone on the record saying that increases in incarceration rates and sentences do not lead to improved public safety, decreased crime rates, or stronger communities. This overcrowding epidemic presents dangerous risks with little to no benefits, and yet it is widely ignored by the public. As Americans, how did we allow our citizens to face such abuse, and what can we do to fix it?

The American Civil Liberties Union identifies four major flaws in the prison system that have brought the country to this problem. First is the highly-unsuccessful War on Drugs. While failing to cause noteworthy decreases in drug use, all the money the United States has spent trying to control the drug industry has increased the number of drug-related convictions. This is not necessarily a bad trend until one considers that many of these convictions come from possession of small amounts of drugs that are not worthy of prison sentences. Additionally, mandatory minimum sentences have set standards for prison sentences for specific crimes without consideration to individual factors. This has taken away the ability for judges to use their expertise to give fair sentences to convicts and has caused longer prison sentences. Hundreds of thousands of inmates have been incarcerated strictly because, although they poise no dangerous threat, they were unable to pay a fine or were convicted of a nonviolence offense. In these cases, inmates are not a concern to the safety of the community and can be equally helped without incarceration, such as through probation or electric monitoring systems, without putting the strain on our prisons. On a similar note, there are several problems that are best addressed without the involvement of the criminal justice system at all. Mental illnesses, substance abuse, and homelessness cannot be solved through prison time and require more serious attention through personal treatment and support. By ending the war on drugs, eliminating mandated minimum sentences, avoiding prison sentences when convicts are not a security threat, and building up programs to treat certain problems, the prison population would be dramatically reduced while maintaining public safety and supporting inmates.

The second alarming trend in this industry is the privatization of prisons, or the government outsourcing of prison control to private, for-profit companies who manage security and other daily operations. The fundamental problem with this, however, is that these companies are strictly interested in profits, and they earn a set income based on the number of prisoners they house. Therefore, prison companies sacrifice human rights in order to lower costs and increase profits. The largest of these companies, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) earns over 1.7 billion dollars annually, despite causing increases in both prisoner-on-prisoner and prisoner-on-guard violence. They also have been accused of fraud in the form of billing states for incomplete work. Despite these problems, however, the massive size of these companies gives them immense political power where they hire lobbyists to press for stricter sentencing guidelines and more corporate privacy. This is especially dangerous because it shifts the focus of the legislature from the best interests of the prisoners to the best interests of the private companies at the expense of inmates. These sacrifices are inhumane and unacceptable for our country. We must prioritize the well-being of our inmates if we expect them to reintegrate into society.

Fortunately, prison reform has recently gained bipartisan support. Recent initiatives in Congress have focused on sentence reform, such as reducing mandatory minimum sentences and allowing judges to give defendants sentences below the minimum. Other bills have proposed equalizing sentences for crack and powder cocaine and classifying some low-level felonies to misdemeanors. Another noteworthy bill sought to change the ways in which criminal records are sealed and expunged, which would allow former inmates and acquitted defendants to find jobs, satisfying an important goal of incarceration. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 proposed reduced penalties for repeat offenders and eliminate some mandatory life sentences. Several efforts have been successful, as the federal prison population dropped by 5,000 inmates in 2014, representing the first decline since 1980. It is these movements toward sentence reform as well as stricter regulations for private prison companies that will restore the goals of our prison system and the high standards it supports.