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The ‘Lock ‘Em up and Throw Away the Key’ Mentality Isn’t Working


Prisons in the United States suffer from serious problems associated with overcrowding, poor sanitation, violence, drugs, and sexual assault. It has been argued by many over many years that imprisonment is expensive and ineffective, yet it continues to be a major feature of penal policy in the justice system.

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Arguments against imprisonment include the idea that prison is not being used as a last resort to deter criminal behavior, housing prisoners is expensive, imprisonment doesn’t deter crime and it is cruel. Despite statistics that confirm these contentions, imprisonment has experienced a growing attraction as a political response to crime. An increased prison population and its inherent human and financial costs have little effect on the attitudes of some. Despite the obvious and extensive failures of our penitentiary system, more people are being sent to prison for more reasons primarily as a result of tougher sentencing laws specifically involving the ‘war on drugs over the past quarter-century, the U.S. has added to its prison population and therefore to its social problems.

Imprisoned rates

The U.S. incarcerates more of its population than any other industrialized country.

The war on drugs is policy based on morals, not on public health, and is taking a grave toll on the economics and civil liberties of our society. Crime is on the rise overcrowding the prison system while inner cities are becoming unlivable decreasing chances for the economic revival in those areas, all as a consequence of a misguided war on drugs to prevent the misuse of drugs.

These governmental drug programs have had very little if any reduction in the use of drugs but a great many innocent victims have had their lives ruined. Law enforcement has proved not to be an effective deterrence in drug use and has made the drug war less effective. The evidence shows that stricter enforcement laws have led to the use of even more potent and more dangerous drugs.

Higher drug arrest rates have caused prison overcrowding and early releases of violent prisoners putting them back on the street which causes more problems and amplifies costs for the public both in personal terms and in judicial expenses. Drug dealers have resorted to juvenile street dealers, who face less severe sentences. Taxpayers, through high crime rates caused by the war on drugs and high tax rates, used to support the war on drugs, continue to fund this fruitless endeavor.

Drug dealers, who are willing to kill each other for-profits obtained from such a lucrative market and junkies, who cannot envision a life without the drug and are willing to rob and kill for money to support their habit, would not feel compelled to resort to these measures if drugs were legal and cheap.

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Public attitude

There are substantial variations in public attitudes with better-educated people expressing less punitive measures than those in blue-collar occupations. Public attitudes are occupied by idealistic contradictions but generally support effective prevention. However, fear produces a perceived need for punitive punishment. People tend to attach importance to a simple approach in which criminals are punished. The subject of crime and its subsequent punishments evoke strong emotional feelings.

Some argue that prisons cost society less than the crime itself so building more prisons is the way to prevent crime.

The more criminals that are locked up, the reasoning goes, the less crime will be committed. Others are incensed, confused, and frustrated that there is not a better way of dealing with offenders than to lock them away to be forgotten. When the idea was first introduced, much of the public found the idea of non-custodial sentences hard to grasp and a soft option to prison.

Economic cost

The high economical cost of prison, the rising prison population, and humanitarian concerns regarding prison do not generally lead people away from the idea of prison usage altogether, though.

The larger concern of public security prompts people to demand that the government do what is necessary to provide that safety.

Statistical arguments about the effectiveness of non-custodial sentences had much less influence than the values and underlying principles of those values such as restitution and social reintegration of offenders. People accept that some types of offenders require different, possibly non-custodial punishment requiring community service, curfews, and tagging. Research has shown that prison population level and time served per prisoner both would have to rise sharply to have a significant effect on crime rates. It is an expensive proposition to lock them up and throw away the key.

Punishments and rehabilitation

There are obvious associations between ideological beliefs and attitudes toward punishment. Not surprisingly, conservative beliefs, measured by agreement with statements endorsing traditional social values, are linked with harsher punitive crime prevention measures and liberal political views with more lenient attitudes.

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Those who argue for prison reform often generate information regarding the costs of incarceration. They do this with the assumption that the public will be suitably shocked to find out what it costs thinking that they will change their views about the current prison system ideology. Some insist that the lesson may be that prisoners should be kept in more inexpensive conditions while still others believe that prison is a bargain compared to the costs of repeatedly arresting and processing.

Society has made astonishing industrial and technical developments over the past century, but it has only made modest progress regarding its answer to crime. A strong argument for increased prison sentences during the ‘tough on crime’ trend that began in the 1980s and continues today is the positive consequences of deterrence. However, the significant increase in the prison population since this time has not correlated with a similar reduction of criminal violence.

Sentencing revisions have put many more violent offenders behind bars but its actual effects cause uncertainty of how already inadequate prison funding should be properly utilized. The evidence showing whether an increase of prisoners is cost-effective in regards to a reduction of felonies is varied. The leadership in society sets its sights on the delinquent class by turning the prison system into a political advantage.

The prison system creates a well-defined criminal class and by maintaining a controllable criminal class, politicians can justify strong police and supervision forces which can also be used for wider political purposes. Since people know that a prison term brings a stigma that remains with an individual for life, they tend to avoid taking risks with the law and ostracize those who do. The prison does not control the criminal so much as it controls the working class by creating the criminal, which is the unspoken rationale for its persistence.

There is a problem with the U.S. penal system; it serves to punish and not to rehabilitate. Offenders are so stigmatized, demoralized, and de-skilled in prison that after release they tend to re-offend, be re-convicted, and transformed into career criminals. Most prisoners, therefore, leave prison no better equipped to fit into society than when they entered it. Some leave a good deal worse off. At its worst, prison simply reinforces delinquent attitudes and skills, and contact with potential accomplices. America is the world leader in many aspects including the number of people it imprisons (per capita) and is ridiculed worldwide for its less than sensible methods by which it attempts to protect its citizens.

Prisons should concentrate on rehabilitation because many inmates will eventually be released. Punishment, aside from a need for societal vengeance, is meant as a deterrent for those who have committed a crime as well as for those who have not.

Since people who commit crimes do so believing they probably won’t get caught, this type of reasoning is based upon a false premise. Those who have committed crimes such as identity theft, prostitution, gambling, and drug use are thrown into an excessively cruel circumstance where violence and sexual assault run rampant which acts an opposite effect of rehabilitation. These people, as well as society, would be better served if they were assigned community service of varying degrees to repay the victim or the community for their transgressions. One method hurts, the other help – seems like a simple and effective solution but one that is rarely considered.


The prison system operates on limited funding. The addition of prison time, while effective for keeping habitual criminals off the street, serves to further overcrowd prisons. This situation creates a ‘revolving door’ effect which releases violent criminals early and adds to an environment that is hardly conducive to rehabilitation. A strong argument for increased prison sentences is the positive consequences of deterrence.

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However, the significant increase in the prison population has not correlated with a similar reduction in violent crime. Confining people who previously were not a physical threat to society into a violent prison environment is, at least, counterproductive for that inmate and does nothing to protect society.

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