The criminal justice system in the United States, has since its inception, been beset by numerous challenges that have threatened to derail it from its main purpose. Challenges such as recidivism, prison overcrowding and the mistreatment of mentally ill patients, continue to threaten the very core of the criminal justice system; the Department of Corrections. Solving all these challenges continues to be a work in progress, with some of the proposed solutions proving to either be wide off the mark, or simply inappropriate most of the time. The report attempts to analyze the challenges individually, as well as the impact they have had on the criminal justice system, complete with recommendations on hypothetical solutions to these challenges.
Problems Facing the Criminal Justice System
The criminal justice system has been under public scrutiny for a while now, partly due to the key role that it plays within society. A significant majority feel that for one reason or another, the criminal justice system just is not fair, honest or effective enough. This opinion is mostly due to the numerous challenges that the criminal justice system currently faces. Some of these challenges have actually been in existences for quite a while, with numerous policy changes failing to adequately address the issues. These issues include the high incarceration rates, hence prison overcrowding, an ineffective approach to mentally ill criminals, repeat offending, as well as the age old problem of racial disparities and discrimination amongst others. Although the problems are well publicized, addressing them continues to be a hard nut to crack, regardless of administration changes as well as numerous attempted interventions. The problem of a high prison population continues to trouble policy makers and the whole nation at large, and is projected to continue, with the prison population expected to exceed capacity by a significant 41 percent by the year 2018 if nothing is done. The challenge over how to address the mentally ill within the criminal justice system is perhaps best captured by the recent United States Justice Department report on the 18 month investigation of PADOC prison (Pennsylvania Department of Corrections) in Cambria, which highlighted the mistreatment of the mentally ill prisoners, or prisoners with intellectual disabilities. The findings that 50 to 60 percent of all the crime in the United States is usually committed by only about 5 to 6 percent of the population, indicates that perhaps the key to addressing crime, would be to effectively address repeat offending, as only a small section of the population commits the crimes on record, but do so repeatedly.
Repeat offending continues to be a major headache within the criminal justice system. Statistics stated above actually serve to reaffirm findings by Marvin Wolfgang’s famous cohort study in Philadelphia, which claimed that only about 5 percent of offenders actually account for 40 percent of the crimes committed. Repeat offending in actual sense helps measure the effectiveness of the correction system, making it an important statistic in criminal justice. A high repeat offending rate, actually suggests a failed correction and criminal justice system. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2007, 16% of the 1,180,469 people on parole returned to incarceration, while 67.5% of 300,000 prisoners released from 15 different states in 1994 returned to prison within three years. Of this percentage, 46.9% were reconvicted for the same crime that sent them to prison in the first place, while 25.4% were convicted of a new crime (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2013). This means that if extrapolated, about two thirds of those released from prisons are usually rearrested within three years, a damning statistic for the corrections system. Two explanations have actually been suggested for repeat offending; the first being that such individuals usually lack proper social attachments and are more impulsive, while the second is that such individuals are usually more exposed to crime opportunities, hence become crime offenders. Indeed, an interview of 29 year old repeat offender Stephan DeShields by Mike Chalmers reveals the lack of proper social attachments, hence, the lack of social controls, as one of the main reasons for reoffending (Chalmers, 2013).
Reoffending has not only led to a society that is less forgiving and quite suspicious of prior offenders; which makes reintegration difficult, but has also come at a significant cost to the tax payer. Chalmers reports that Delaware has reached a spending budget of 267 million dollars on corrections alone. Repeat offending has also had a significant impact on the crime rates and hampered public safety, as in most cases, repeat offenders are usually behind violent crimes. Due to recidivism, the prison population of the United States continues to dwarf that of other developed nations, leading to a greater amount of funds being channeled to what is fast becoming an ineffective corrections system.
A number of measures have been put in place to rectify the situation with no success, amongst them being sting operations, whereby police departments created fake markets to sell stolen goods in order to help apprehend perennial offenders without much success. Other measures included stiffer penalties for repeat offenders; like the three strikes law as well as closer supervision in the form of parole officers. Probation and the “three strikes law,” continue to be enforced, although the success rate is a bit questionable.
Perhaps key to solving the problem permanently would be carrying out research to identify the main reasons behind reoffending, findings that could go a long way towards helping identify potential re-offenders. For instance, if confirmed that the lack of proper social attachments hence social control, leads to reoffending, prisoners who do not have families can be put under closer supervision, as they would be at a higher risk of committing new offences, or repeating the same old ones. Secondly, one of the key reasons prisoners reoffend, is the lack of support after their release from prison, especially financial. Most find it hard to obtain well paying work, hence turn to the only thing they know: crime. Not only must the criminal justice system establish programs that ease offenders back into the community by offering work or employment opportunities, but such programs must also be accompanied by campaigns that discourage the labeling of ex convicts as well as their discrimination. Once stigmatization is effectively dealt with, most of the ex convicts would no doubt find it easier to earn an honest living and engage in legitimate activities. As for ex convicts who do not have any social attachments, the program can be used to help them establish social ties to the communities, hence creating social control that may have otherwise been lacking. In order to achieve these measures, supervision programs and approaches such as parole officers must continue to be employed. Probation or the practice of the three strikes rule must also continue to be enforced, more so for its unquestionable deterrent value.
The overcrowding of prisons in the United States is a well established fact. Koenig (2006) reports that the United States has the highest incarceration rates in the world, with2.2 million people incarcerated as of 2006, at least 4 times higher than any European nation, and an astonishing 14 times the prisoner population of Japan. According to Bloomberg and Karol (2010), the challenge of prison overcrowding is as old as the Pennsylvania system, as it has been experienced since the inception of the prison system, but has grown much worse. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, as of 2011, there were about 1.6 million prisoners incarcerated in both state and federal prisons, an excess of about 24% above the capacity of the prisons. California is the worst hit with a record high of 137.5% above capacity. The State prisons were by far the largest culprits when it came to overcrowding, with projections done by the Ministry of Justice indicating that the number of incarcerated prisoners could rise further by about 100,000, well above the planned expansion by the government. This therefore implies that a lot needs to be done urgently to arrest the situation. A number of causes have been cited for the increased rates of incarceration in the United States, although the one that stands out the most is the passage of harsher laws and penalties (Gaes, 1994). Numerous changes in policy, sentencing practices and law, now mean that one out of every four offenders is likely to be sentenced to prison, compared to one in seven as it was in 1992 (Criminal Justice Alliance, 2012). Further, high recidivism rates, as well as a more efficient law enforcement have also contributed considerably to the problem. Perhaps also tied to the question of harsher penalties, is the adoption of a tough on crime approach by the political class.
Even though it is not yet a proven fact, prison overcrowding is definitely a minus for the purpose of the penitentiary system, as it hampers an important aspect of the system; that of penitence. Due to the fact that prisoners are forced to share rooms originally intended for a single inmate, they do not have time to reflect on what they did wrong, a factor that could be behind the higher recidivism rates. Further, exposure to even more dangerous criminals must increase the risk of reoffending. Overall, prison overcrowding has led to a less efficient criminal justice system that is unable to effectively correct and rehabilitate inmates. In addition, prison overcrowding also poses a danger to the inmates themselves, as the rates of assault, are higher in prisons where the prisoners are crowded in dorm like prison cells. On the general population, overcrowding has come at an increased cost to the tax payer, not just in terms of expansion, but also in terms of keeping the inmates in prison; which comes at an average direct cost of about $25000 per year. When this is multiplied by the current prison population, the total cost to the tax payer is a significant 40 billion dollars per year.
In response to the challenge of overcrowding, the first approach adopted by the department of corrections was obviously prison expansion. Further approaches have included the rejection of the principle of solitary confinement, as well as the utilization of prisoners to carry out chores during the day or the utilization of other prison areas such as the library or recreation yard. More recent approaches include the utilization of parole on prisoners who exhibit good conduct, as well as early release of prisoners. An approach that has perhaps been necessitated by budget deficits is that of transferring less dangerous inmates from incarceration to less expensive community supervision projects. Another approach currently being pursued is that of reducing the sentences of certain crimes, which had unnecessarily been lengthened, especially drug related crimes. Some of this measures currently being enforced are effective at reducing the prison population to a certain extent. Although some of them have significant risks; especially of increasing insecurity through the release of inmates who are yet to be properly rehabilitated.
Solving the challenge of prison overcrowding indeed requires a complete review of the sentencing system and the general laws and policies governing crime. In addition, there is a need to adopt a more preventive approach that would allow for the prediction and prevention of future crimes, as opposed to adopting a reactive approach (Angelos & James, 2012). Such an approach would include identification of the risk factors for future criminal behavior, such as child abuse. Once such children are identified, they could be put in programs that help them develop self restraint and social controls, hence deterring crime altogether. In line with reducing recidivism, the juvenile justice system also needs to be revamped to ensure the rehabilitation of juvenile delinquents, so as to reduce the chances of such individuals adopting crime as adults. The question of how to reduce overcrowding in prisons is however, linked to reducing crime in society and developing an efficient criminal justice system, a debate that cannot really be exhausted or solved by one approach, although shifting the goal of the system from simple punishment to true rehabilitation is the key (Campers, 2012).
Mental Illness and the Criminal Justice System
Mental illness normally poses a challenge even in normal situations, hence, dealing with mentally ill inmates poses a unique challenge to the criminal justice system. Although certain rights need to be observed, justice also needs to be observed, with some inmates posing a significant security risk for the general public (James & Glaze, 2006). As currently set up however, the criminal justice system is ill prepared to handle the mentally ill, as such individuals usually require special care and have special needs that can only be handled under certain conditions. One of the biggest conundrums when it comes to dealing with mentally ill criminals, is establishing whether to pursue incarceration or treatment, as in most cases, such individuals are not really in the right frame of mind to be held responsible. According to the Department of Justice (2009) 16.9% of incarcerated adults suffer from mental illness, implying that about 1 in every six individuals imprisoned suffers from mental illness of one form or another. Not only are such inmates usually subjected to unusually cruel and inhumane punishments, such as segregation and violence, but they are also deprived of their medication, which only serves to worsen their conditions. The current approach has led to a situation whereby the number of mentally ill in prisons exceeds those in psychiatric facilities. Considering that a mentally ill inmate costs the tax payer more, such a huge population of the mentally ill in prisons ends up costing considerably more money. Once released from prison without proper care, such individuals usually recorded a much higher rate of recidivism, leading to an even bigger problem. In some cases, lack of proper management has even led to the death of inmates through suicide (Cloud & Davis, 2013).
Although the justice system is yet to make concerted and clear efforts to deal with the problem, proposed measures include establishing special detention facilities for such individuals, as well as special courts. Further, ensuring that such individuals continue to receive proper care even while in prison, could also go a long way towards reducing recidivism amongst this special group and reduce the chances of mistreatment.
Angelos, C., & James, J. (2012). Our Crowded Prisons. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 478, 100-112.
BJS (2012). Bureau of Justice Statistics. Office of Justice Programs. Retrieved from http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov
Blomberg, T., & Karol, L. (2010). American Penology: A History of Control. New Brunswick: AldineTransaction.
Campers, S. (2012). A Failing Correctional System: State Prison Overcrowding in the United States. Salve’s Dissertations and Theses.
Chalmers, M. (2013). Repeat Offenders. The News Journal. Retrieved from http://www.delawareonline.com/article/20130609/NEWS02/306090044/Repeat-offenders
CJA (2012). Crowded Out: The Impact of Prison Overcrowding on Rehabilitation.
Cloud, D., & Davis, C. (2013). Treatment Alternatives to Incarceration for People with Mental Health Needs in the Criminal Justice System: The Cost-Savings Implications. Retrieved from http://www.vera.org/sites/default/files/resources/downloads/treatment-alternatives to-incarceration.pdf
Department of Justice (2009). Addressing Mental Illness in the Criminal Justice System. Retrieved from http://blogs.justice.gov/main/archives/431
Gaes, G. (1994). Prison Crowding Research Reexamined. Federal Bureau of Prisons.
James, D., & Glaze, L. (2006). Mental Health Problems of Prison and Jail Inmates. Department of Justice.
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