The United States contains only 5 percent of the world’s people but holds 25% of its prison population (Reich). Prisons in America are overcrowded, expensive to taxpayers, and fail to prevent dangerous individuals from posing a threat to society or to prepare convicts for a second chance at a meaningful life outside prison. Coupled with the fact that the number of incarcerated Americans has risen sharply over the past few decades, this startling reality leads to the conclusion that the prison system in America is broken. Policymakers within government have long debated whether prison reform should occur and what that reform should entail. Some groups want prisons to function like they currently do with an increase in prison security and sentences, while others want to drastically reform punishment and sentencing laws. Despite this discord, policymakers at all levels of government must take action now to fix a system desperately in need of repair. Prisons that center around rehabilitation and reducing sentences are economically efficient, and moving prisons away from strategies that involve punishment and confinement to those focused on human dignity is morally correct. Prison reform is necessary because rehabilitation within prisons is more effective than punishment.
In many cases, prison reform begins when organizations look to model their system after more efficient versions. For instance, North Dakota has seen positive results by attempting to replicate aspects of the Norwegian prison system (Hatfield). Some of the reforms undertaken to model the Norwegian system include “baseball games between staff and residents, field trips to local attractions, and freedom for the residents to roam the grounds during the day” (Hatfield). These activities serve the purpose of attempting to engage those in prison and help them to see a better future. Some critics of prison reforms that attempt to model European systems argue that those models are not scalable to the large correctional programs found in the U.S. (Hatfield). Despite some possible barriers, the Norwegian model demonstrates that these types of prisons work, and, therefore, an investigation into implementing similar changes in America is worthwhile.
Prison programs that focus on rehabilitating convicts rather than punishing them are clearly more effective. Broadly, prisons that rehabilitate criminals center around providing job skills and training programs to convicts, allowing individuals to move past self-destructive behaviors that once controlled their lives, and creating an environment that fosters collaboration between convicts and prison staff. The main reason rehabilitation works is because it reduces recidivism, or the act of a criminal repeating their offense or committing new crimes. For example, in Ohio inmates who enroll in college classes, a type of rehabilitation program, while in prison have a recidivism rate of 18%, in comparison to a rate of 40% for those who do not take courses (Reich). Connie Gibbs, an inmate from Nebraska, firmly believes in the concept of rehabilitation programs, arguing in a letter that recidivism “could be reduced immensely by implementing a transitioning process before inmates are released back into the vicious cycle that landed them in prison in the first place” (Larson 269). Keeping criminals from returning to prison after release benefits society, since ex-convicts would then have a greater opportunity to live free lives, pursue happiness, and contribute to society.
Perhaps the most beneficial aspect of rehabilitation prisons is that a clear link exists between this system and the economic benefit to formerly incarcerated individuals and society at large. Transitioning the role of prisons toward one of rehabilitation and reducing sentences for certain groups of crimes is economically efficient and saves prisons and taxpayers a great deal of money. Overall, job-training programs, an important form of rehabilitation, reduce recidivism and therefore save money. For instance, in Minnesota a program known as “work-release” allows convicts to work within the local community toward the end of their sentences. This program reduces rates of recidivism by 17%, and this decrease in the prison population saved the state $1.25 million over the course of a four-year period (Reich). In addition to keeping people out of prison through rehabilitation programs, common sense reform to sentencing laws would save governments substantial amounts of money. In general, common sense reforms are changes to a system that the average person would view as logical. An example of this approach to policy would be the decision of Utah’s governor to change first and second-time drug possession violations to misdemeanors, rather than felonies, which will likely save the state $500 million over the next two decades (Hatfield).
Critics of prison rehabilitation programs and efforts often respond with an economic argument of their own, namely that these programs come with an up-front financial cost for prisons and society that is too large to bear. Jacob Reich perfectly explains why this critique is not very valid, saying:
Although prison rehabilitation programs initially cost prisons money to implement, studies have shown that these programs decrease the recidivism rate, decreasing this prison population. With fewer people in prison, correctional facilities need less money to operate, thus requiring less money from taxpayers. (Reich)
These monetary savings would pay for the up-front costs over a period of time. Additional evidence, such as the studies Reich references, demonstrates that changing laws and the prison structures eventually leads to financial savings. The need for change becomes even more apparent when keeping in mind how the current financial challenges prisons are facing will only worsen in the future. Charles Hammer, a prisoner in Oregon as of 2013, elaborates on the rising costs the contemporary prison system is creating, saying, “we may well be fostering an environment that produces more violence and, certainly, ever-increasing fiscal costs (Larson 185). Given the alternative of increased crime rates and more violent offenders, the economic evidence should be enough to convince policymakers that certain measures that reform prisons are necessary.
Although most issues are presented through an economic lens, the moral case that exists for prison rehabilitation and the reform of sentencing laws is worth considering as well. This is primarily because Americans who break the law in a nonviolent way and do not put other citizens at risk deserve a second chance to live happy and productive lives outside the walls of prison, once they complete their sentence. Very rarely throughout the rest of society does committing one mistake define and affect the rest of a person’s life. In April 2019, the First Step Act was announced as a piece of legislation aiming to reduce sentences for many federal inmates and provide job training throughout prisons (Miles). Simply put, most people deserve a second chance to make a positive impact on their lives and the lives of others. In terms of rehabilitation, one concrete example of how prisons can act ethically to improve the lives of inmates is by providing substance abuse services. These services are not readily available in many prisons, even when inmates desperately need them. A. Whitfield, a prisoner from New York state, talks about how difficult the transition to prison life can be, stating, “Transformation is difficult in any environment, but in prison the helplessness and hopelessness can be overwhelming” (Larson 61). This transition is especially difficult when harmful substances are involved. Studies show that alcohol and drug addiction programs help prisoners rebuild their lives, giving them another opportunity to positively affect the world and reducing their dependence on dangerous substances, the effects of which are costly to society (Reich). Because those who break the law and those who do not will greatly benefit from rehabilitation, reforming the prison system in America is the ethically right thing to do.
The final reason why prison reform is the morally correct is that, as previously mentioned, many people are currently serving extremely long sentences for committing nonviolent crimes. These people do not pose more of a danger to society than any other normal citizen, and their incarceration for decades is a grossly unfair punishment. However, nonviolent offenders face many challenges as people fight for their liberation. Many citizens and politicians believe prison reform that involves shortening the sentences of these people constitutes a great danger to the country. Jacob Sullum precisely analyzes this situation and offers a response when he writes:
Congress is on the verge of freeing hordes of muggers and murderers. That is not remotely true, and they know it … only politicians who think nothing of locking people in cages for decades based on conduct that violates no one’s rights could possibly view those changes [the First Step Act] as soft on crime. (Sullum)
Sullum’s argument perfectly describes the moral reasons supporting sentencing reform, and numerous examples exist that demonstrate how that reform could manifest itself. The time has come for America to follow the lead of other nations and exhibit what reasonable compassion looks like related to this important issue.
Of course, simply reforming the prison system will not fix all of the issues associated with prisons in America, such as the fact that prisons are overcrowded and people are incarcerated for the wrong reasons. To truly solve this problem, systemic changes must occur at the heart of American society, as the transgenerational cycles of poverty and lack of opportunity that occur within various communities throughout the country are the ultimate cause of crime and prison sentences in the United States. In addition to prison reform, policymakers must consider addressing the problems at the center of the prison issue by providing economic opportunity and the chance for social mobility to the types of people who have been historically impacted by incarceration, such as people of color.
Despite the potential for these structural changes to American society, the need for prison reform still remains abundantly clear. Over the course of American history, citizens and policymakers have done an excellent job changing laws and the general framework of society in order to make the country increasingly better off. Prison reform, which should include transitioning the role of prisons from that of punishment toward one of rehabilitation, as well as reducing sentences for certain classes of crimes, is the next logical step to ensure the United States continues to improve the lives of its citizens. Prison reform is necessary because rehabilitation is more effective than confinement and punishment, and reducing sentences and rehabilitating criminals is not only economically efficient but also helps Americans to reach their full potential. The United States will not become a more just nation until we implement a human-centric prison reform focused on the dignity of all.
Hatfield, Sierra. “States Aim for Rehabilitation in Prison Reform.” The Council of State Governments Knowledge Center, 27 Sept. 2018, knowledgecenter.csg.org/kc/content/states-aim-rehabilitation-prison-reform. Accessed 3 Apr. 2019.L
Larson, Doran, ed. Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in America. East Lansing, Michigan State University Press, 2013.
Miles, Frank. “Trump Makes April First Step Act Month, Aiming to Boost Prisoner Rehabilitation Efforts.” Fox News, 1 Apr. 2019, www.foxnews.com/politics/trump-makes-april-first-step-act-month-aiming-boost-prisoner-rehabilitation-efforts. Accessed 3 Apr. 2019.
Reich, Jacob. “The Economic Impact of Prison Rehabilitation Programs.” Wharton Public Policy Initiative, 17 Aug. 2017, publicpolicy.wharton.upenn.edu/live/news/2059-the-economic-impact-of-prison-rehabilitation/for-students/blog/news.php. Accessed 4 Apr. 2019.
Sullum, Jacob. “The Critics’ Case against Criminal Justice Reform Is Pathetic.” The New York Post, 21 Nov. 2018, nypost.com/2018/11/21/the-critics-case-against-criminal-justice-reform-is-pathetic/. Accessed 3 Apr. 2019.