Although some citizens and policymakers argue that increased incarceration reduces crime thus making communities safer, the use of incarceration as the primary tool for social control and crime reduction costs the country a great deal both socially and economically as evidenced by its impact on urban communities and the country’s economy. Despite research done by criminologists that suggests “get tough” policies such as “three strikes laws” and bloating the prison population have little to no impact on actual crime rates policy makers from both parties continue to embrace laws that stiffen sentences for more types of offenses and offenders (Pratt). Moreover, people’s views on criminals are heavily influenced by misconceptions of the justice system, religious beliefs, personal beliefs, and heavily exaggerated media accounts of criminal incidents. It has become, consequently, very difficult for criminals to re-habilitate into society because of the way they are perceived by the public and potential employers. It is even more difficult to have constructive conversations on this issue because people’s judgments are clouded by false information and exaggerated media reports. Michael D. Reisig of Florida State University, puts America’s incarceration culture into perspective: “when compared to other Western democracies, the incarceration in the United States is staggering” (Pratt 6). America’s bloated prison population results in a great social harm, thus a serious evaluation of incarceration practices is necessary.
The belief that mass incarceration is the most effective way of reducing crime is not driven by empirical evidence, but by society’s unquestioned faith in the country’s policy makers and media outlets. Often times, people tend to accept published statistics at face value rather than questioning the process from which these numbers are drawn. For this reason, in the United States statistics are manipulated by media outlets and political leaders to mislead and control the public. Over the last thirty years, the prison population in the United States has exponentially grown; however, the rate of violent crimes has remained somewhat stable. In 2002 the Associated Press ran a story about that year’s drop in crime. Rates of the number of offenses actually went up that year. Nonetheless, the writer of the story cited two alleged experts: an economist from Stanford and senior member of a research firm in Chicago. In a statement sent to the Associated Press, the “experts” attributed that year’s drop in crime rate to tougher sentencing laws and the growing prison population, thus causing “get tough” advocates to rejoice. In the end, it turned out that neither of these experts even existed. The AP received countless emails from criminologists claiming that they never even heard of these “scholars.” There was no mention of the Stanford professor in the University’s faculty list, nor was there any information on the research firm based out of Chicago. Eventually, it was revealed that two pranksters were able to slip their story by AP without question (Pratt 61-62).
The effect of America’s misuse of incarceration is most evident in urban communities. The reason why a majority of ex-convicts end up behind bars again is not solely because they present a great danger to society, but because the advancement and rehabilitation opportunities in place today are scarce and fail to address the needs of ex-convicts. In a report conducted by Gregory S. Scott, he writes “after having served a median prison term of fifteen months, approximately sixteen hundred inmates disgorge from state and federal prisons every day of the week” (“Jabbing Blow”). Moreover, in the greater Chicago area alone, “roughly fifteen hundred male ex-convicts return to their neighborhoods each month” (Scott 105). These ex-convicts often return to the same marginalized conditions, which initially caused them to get in trouble with the law. Only this time, they are faced with fewer opportunities to enhance their lifestyles and communities. In the state of Illinois alone, more than 40 percent of ex-offenders return to prison within three years of their release – the majority of which return within the first two years of their release (Scott 106).
It is explicitly obvious that the current method by which we imprison citizens in American communities is not working. Prison is not preparing convicts for life after jail, but stagnating communal and family development. These startling statistics should serve as a wakeup call to policymakers. Increasing the imprisoned population by creating “get tough” policies is not helping communities, but instead creating a social narrative that is stripping communities from workers, husbands, and fathers. Policy makers should be less worried about throwing people in jail and more concerned about effectively training convicts for life after jail. Redeveloping our current prison system plays a vital role in re-developing communities that are crime and poverty stricken.
The United States is a capitalist nation. Everything in this society is driven by the power of the dollar, including prison. The more people that are put into jail, the more costly it becomes to sustain America’s prison population. Nevertheless, policy makers continue to create laws that are putting people in jail at historic rates. This situation, thus, creates a large strain on the American economy. In 2010, it cost more than $31,000 to keep an individual in jail for a year. This number, however, ranged from state to state. For example, in Kentucky, it cost nearly $15,000 to keep someone in jail, while in New York it cost about $60,000 (Jacobson). Even more astoundingly, these numbers nearly triple as inmates grow older. Moreover, as more inmates over the age of forty continue to be imprisoned, the cost of healthcare in prison will continue to grow at alarming rates.
These figures reveal that policymakers are interested not only in reducing crime but also in gaining profit and political ground. According to Travis Pratt, “getting tough has been politically profitable for correction policy stakeholders in a number of different ways” (Pratt 97). Maintaining a culture of incarceration economically works for a number of groups in the correction industry—groups that have invested a rather large amount of energy and resources in maintaining and growing the prison population. Not only this, but expanding the prison population also works for corporate America. For example, AT&T and MCI have placed pay phones inside of prisons that collect revenue from the collect calls inmates make. Additionally, food businesses continue to pitch their products to the prison industry. Just like businesses promote their products to the American public, they also pitch their products to the general inmate population. The bottom line is that growing the prison population is an economic burden on the American people because they are the ones giving their hard-earned income to maintain convicts in jail. Corporate America, however, is winning as they reap the benefits from the products being sold, whether it is food, shower products, or pay phones.
The claims mentioned above offer more than enough evidence that calls for policymakers to re-think the way crime is handled in the United States. The “get-tough” approach must be left behind in order to effectively reduce the nation’s crime rate. A change in our perception of criminals is necessary; the answer does not lie in reducing crime, but in imagining and creating methods that prevent crime. The process of change is a collaborative effort that must include policymakers, parents, teachers, and community leaders. Crime prevention is a process that begins during childhood, when the mind is still moldable and children are willing to listen. If the United States is truly the land of equal opportunity, there should be an initiative to enhance public schools all over the country, not just in wealthier districts. Opportunities should be created for children to expand their horizons by traveling, creating, and expressing themselves so that they are not confined to the borders of their neighborhood. A more expansive, intriguing education will result in the development of better people, starting from an early age.
Additionally, policy makers should embrace laws that create opportunities for ex-convicts to rehabilitate themselves into society through work and education. For these ex-convicts, the life they choose stems from a lack of options. Poor economic conditions force individuals in these “crime and poverty stricken” neighborhoods to resort to selling drugs in order to provide for themselves and their families. If more avenues to make money the legal way are opened, the chance of resorting back to selling drugs minimizes, thus decreasing the probability of getting arrested. There is no clear-cut way of solving this issue, but is essential that prevention must be brought to the center of attention rather than sliding it under the rug. It is a shame that America’s prison population runs close to the number of college graduates in a given year—that fact alone should serve as an incentive to create a new system.
“Jabbing Blow, Pitching Rocks, and Stacking Paper.” Crime & Employment: Critical Issues in Crime Reduction for Corrections. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira, 2004. 106-40. Print.
Jacobson, Michael. “The High Cost of Prisons: Using Scarce Resources Wisely.” Thecrimereport.org. The Crime Report, 12 Feb. 2012. Web. 23 Apr. 2014.
Pratt, Travis C. Addicted to Incarceration: Corrections Policy and the Politics of Misinformation in the United States. Los Angeles: SAGE, 2009. Print. Foreword.