Time magazine reports an alarming study, where the United Stated is imprisoning more offenders (violent and nonviolent) in prisons and jails than any other country in the world. It is useful to use conflict theory and structural functionalism to explain this practice and to break down the topic with these two schools to then begin building solutions to this crisis. The report done by the Pew Center urges states to stop the practice of putting non-violent offenders behind bars. The report also points to the spending done on corrections, which outweighs spending done on education.
From a conflict theory standpoint, many “law and order” type states demonize low-level offenders, such as drug and alcohol users, and alienate them from society. These people are more likely to become “caught in the system” and commit low-level crimes (such as stealing to support a drug habit) to only re-enter jail or prison. Even though addiction is viewed as a disease, it is not treated as such, therein lies the structural functionalist perspective that the system of law is black and white.
The system functions to exhibit to society what actions are allowable and which actions are criminal, from this perspective there are no nonviolent and violent offenders, only offenders. Both schools of thought are helpful in pointing out many of the interesting points in the article. According to the study, 1 in 100 Americans are in jails or prisons. Add to that number the disproportionate numbers of minorities incarcerated and from a conflict standpoint, one can see inequality in this number.
One in thirty men ages 20-34 are behind bars while for African-American men, the number is 1 in 9. For women ages 35 to 39, 1 for every 355 Caucasian women are imprisoned while the figures for their African-American counterparts is 1 in 100. From the article, as well, it is shown that spending on schools is less than spending on corrections. From a conflict standpoint, it can be presupposed that schools in more violent areas could serve to help children, who may be susceptible to criminal activity, but since these schools are in “bad” neighborhoods they receive little help.
Therefore, looking at poverty as inequality and the ignorance of education in lieu of incarceration spending is important, the study suggests. From a structural functionalist perspective, one can gather from reading the article, that many of the programs used today to get “tough on crime”, such as the three strikes law is putting more prisoners behind bars. From this perspective, one can see that the system of justice reacts to the public outcry for punishment for certain crimes and in turn react by enforcing stricter laws.
The structure of law is something that changes due to the differences in the social value system. When a value held by Americans is threatened, for example when an ex-offender is released and commits a heinous murder on re-entry to society, the laws change to reflect the feelings of discourse. The system therefore, has changed to reflect an increasingly punitive society and another interesting note in the article is that the United States remains one of the leaders in nations, in relation to capital punishment.
The structure of justice reflects the American structure of punishment and incarceration while the value of treatment and mediation is almost non-existent. In closing, the article “US Incarceration Rate Hits New High” is a look into the cost of conflict and the inadequate use of punishment in the system of justice. The sociological schools of conflict and structural functionalist theory are helpful in looking at these numbers in the current research to later apply it to ameliorating the problem, as many states are in a financial crisis with this problem.
The Pew Center is urging the states, so burdened by high costs and high inmate population, to curtail the practice of incarcerating non-violent offenders. Hopefully further sociological studies will help this process further. References Crary D. (February 28th, 2008). “US Incarceration Rate Hits New High”. in Time Magazine. Available online http://www. time. com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1718266,00. html. Last accessed February 28th, 2008.
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