Current Situation in the USA
Most prisons in the United States are overcrowded at the moment, sometimes unconstitutionally. The statistics of incarcerated people in the U.S. are higher than in any other country in the world, both per capita and in absolute terms. The state “has less than 5% of the world’s population, but 20% of the world’s prison inmates” (Leipold 2019). There are over two million imprisoned people in the United States, one per every hundred adult populations (Leipold 2019). Based on these facts, the term “mass incarceration” is commonly used relatively in the modern approach to punishment and crime.
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Contradictory Imprisonment Arguments
Many people argue that fewer people should be charged in ways triggering prison sentences by prosecutors. On the other hand, most people get to prison for violent acts. Hence, these two facts are contradictory, as it is entirely reasonable to expect that all individuals committing acts of violence should spend at least some time in prison. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that out of around half a million people annually arrested for violent crimes, fewer than 200,000 admit to prisons (Reddy 2019). Additionally, the limited resources also matter: each dollar spent in jail is a dollar that could be spent on non-police interventions (for example, Cure Violence), policing, or drug treatment. Simultaneously, prison is not the most effective approach to combat crimes. Therefore, non-prison strategies maybe even more efficient for decreasing violence rates at a less social cost.
Financial and Social Prison Costs
The analysis of the prison’s gains should be compared to both its financial and social costs. Running the prisons costs the government about fifty billion dollars annually. Simultaneously, there are vaster social costs that cannot be ultimately measured. They include the risk of sexual and physical assault among the imprisoned, the income loss after release, the emotional, social, and financial costs to the loved and family of inmates, the diseases spread in prisons, the increase of overdosing drugs, and others. Currently, there is no rough data about these costs, but their number is still significant, even being approximate.
Former AGS (Attorney General Sessions) and similar skeptics of criminal justice reform argued that crime decline correlates with increased incarceration levels during the past twenty years (Berk 2017). However, this argument is pretty controversial; hence, it is essential to analyze it more deeply. In the 1970s-1980s, the crime was high and increasing, whereas the number of prisoners was low and growing (Reddy 2019). Obviously, prison growth reduced crime growth as it is impossible to imprison over one million people without any effect. It was a political necessity but not the best response to increased crime. There are other available options with lower social costs, for example, increased policing as a simple and at the same time efficient measure. Here, a very eloquent analogy might be proposed: when one’s toe is infected, the spread of infection should be stopped. The decision to cut off the whole leg is made instead of, at least, trying antibiotics first. Hence, prison growth has massive collateral consequences that are avoidable in their nature.
State Defense Issues
Moreover, recent studies show that the more time an individual spends in prison, the longer he or she is incapacitated and, therefore, unable to commit crimes. Upon release, the risk of an individual’s reoffending is directly proportioned to that time, as it is the easiest way to offset the incapacitation impact. There is also a significant gap in indigent defense, according to many criminal justice reformers. Hence, the need to fix policies is a sharp issue of the modern system. The reality of this crisis lies in the difference between the budgets spent on prosecution and indigent defense. Simultaneously, not less than 80% of defendants facing prison time are considered destitute and, therefore, need a state-provided defender (Reddy 2019). According to the American Bar Association and the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2006-2007, the state “spent about $6 billion on prosecution and about $4.5 billion on indigent defense. But that significantly understates the difference” (Reddy 2019). It is noteworthy that the prosecutors offices have free access to all services, while defense lawyers have to pay for the wide variety.
These services include but are not limited to, the forensics and investigation done by the police departments, DNA tests and drug tests in state labs, and others. Research conducted in North Carolina revealed that “while the nominal budgets for public defense and prosecution were roughly identical, the prosecutors’ budgets were essentially triple the defenders’ once all the free services that prosecutors (alone) received were accounted for” (Reddy 2019). Hence, some federal assistance would be the most natural solution for indigent defense. Federal grants can at least double the costs spent on public protection. It is noteworthy that this issue is now increasingly gaining bipartisan support. The left has always supported it, though mostly nominally. Conservative support started growing due to the Second Amendment’s concerns, which deprive poor people of gun rights through inadequate representation (Reddy 2019). There is probably nothing more conservative than protecting the weakest population from the dominant state.
If there are no further actions from Congress’s side, the Supreme Court might interfere, although it is the classic example of an unfunded mandate. The Court forces the state to provide needy with the lawyers but does not explain how to do it. An adequate defense should be solved at systemic but not just an individual case level to push the state in a better direction. Another crucial issue of the modern criminal justice system is a moral hazard problem. It arises from the poorly-reasoned and unfavorable way the state fractures financial and political responsibility for criminal environment control across state, county, and city jurisdictions. One of the most vivid examples is the monetary and political costs faced by the prosecutors. In the vast majority of states, county voters elect prosecutors who are further funded from the county’s budget. Jails and all the probation services are financed from the same source. In turn, the state supports the prisons as the punishment tool for serious felony crimes. The best example of coping with this issue was a step taken by California, which adopted a complex, sprawling reform law named “Realignment.” Its sense was in “scaling back California’s reliance on prisons—about 45% of the national decline in prison populations since 2010 is just California’s decline” (Reddy 2019). The success of the named reform was achieved due to county jails’ obligation to house people convicted of various felonies instead of state prisons. In other words, the costs were pushed back on counties.
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The precise evaluation of the criminal justice system’s fairness should be done through routine collection and competitive analysis of the relevant data. These efforts need to be expanded instead of grossly underfunding or shutting them down. The arising issues include race, ethnicity, gender, immigrant status, age, and others. The criminal justice system should be called to change fundamentally from top to bottom. Nevertheless, any desirable and clearly detailed changes take years to be implemented. Both the state and the citizens need a fair criminal justice system. Simultaneously, many people doubt that reforms like California implemented would increase the crime rate. Nevertheless, there has been no actual evidence of such an increase. The individuals claiming the threat of rising crime include sheriffs, prosecutors, and the police, and all of them form the group with the most severe political opposition to reform.
Berk, Richard. Fairness in the Criminal Justice System. OMNIA, 2017, Web.
Leipold, Andrew D. Is Mass Incarceration Inevitable? 2019, Web.
Reddy, Vikrant. “Two Views on Criminal Justice Reform: The Author and a Critic on Locked In.” Federalist Society Review, 2019. Web.