Sociology

The us Prison System how it Fails



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The United States of America today has a higher percent of its population in jail now than any country today or in human history. This number began to skyrocket in the 1980's and it has continued its upward trajectory since. Comparing this with other parts of the world, at the beginning of 2008 2.3 million Americans were in jail. That is more than 1 out of every 100 people. In comparison, China, with a population nearly four times the size of the United States had a prison population of 1.5 million people. This alone is a clear indication that something has gone wrong with the prison system in America.

The primary question of America incarceration is that of punishment versus reform. There is a strong natural desire to punish those that have committed crimes and the worse the crime the more we want to punish them. There is some assumption that this punishment will make them not want to return to jail and therefore less likely to commit a crime.

This on its surface seems like a reasonable idea, but before we can accept that view we must consider the reasons that people commit crime. Do they enjoy crime? Are they unaware of the possibility of prison? Do they believe prison to be a fun place? For some percentage of the population the answers to these questions may be yes, but for a far larger percentage the reasons to commit crime is hardly a decision at all.

The war on drugs is the primary reason for skyrocketing incarceration rates and though many of those who spend time in jail are drug dealers there is also a considerable number who are in jail for possession and even among those convicted of dealing it is often due to an addition of their own. These people of course at some point made the choice to take addictive drugs, and they had the opportunity to quit. Why should we then spend money to rehabilitate them? Why not lock them down so they can't have drugs and then after their punishment is over send them out again?

The answer is simply one of economics. Disregarding any other factor the reincarceration rate in prison is between 35 and 55 percent. This means that often half of the people in prison have been in prison before. As it cost an average of 22,000 dollars a year to house a prisoner. With 2.3 million prisoners that means in the united states we are spending 506,000,000,000 dollars a year. If through attempts to rehabilitate prisoners we could reduce that rate of reincarceration by just a few percent it could save billions of dollars a year, not to mention the countless lives that would be improved both of those who chose not to commit the crimes and those who would have been the victims of those crimes.

If the hope of our criminal justice system is to punish people it is working effectively. On the other hand, if what we truly want is to reduce the impact of crime on our society then we must consider a new plan. Crime is in large part an outcome of hopelessness because people who have another way do not commit crime. So finding ways to give people hope in prison is not only the compassionate thing to do but a smart societal and economic choice.

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