I have chosen to research the correctional system of the United States for many reasons. The first reason is that I believe this component of the legal system has the most problems facing it. Another reason is that this topic interests me and I would like to learn more about it.
There are many important issues, challenges and problems within the United States correctional system that need to be addressed. I found it difficult to focus on just three issues. The first problem I will discuss in my paper will be the issue of the growing population in the prisons. Prisons are overcrowded and murderers who have served barely half of their sentence are being released because the state facility needs their beds for other inmates. The second issue that I will discuss is prisoners and drugs; including, drug addicted prisoners and drug treatment prisoners. The third issue that I will talk about also pertains to drugs and deals with the problem of drug trafficking in prisons.
The first component of the United States correctional system that I have chose to discuss is the problem caused by overcrowded prisons. This is an important topic because overcrowded facilities are a huge problem in America and are very detrimental to society. Prisoners who have been convicted of murder, but have shown good behavior while in prison, are being released with not even serving half of their sentence. The parole board is releasing these prisoners because space is needed for other prisoners coming in. What if, that prisoner that was released early because of overcrowded prisons had killed a member of your family and might now go kill someone else? Wouldn’t that make you a little upset with our system?
There are many reasons why prisons in the United States are so overcrowded. To understand overcrowdedness one must first understand how expensive it is to build and maintain these correctional facilities. In 1993 the average cost to keep just one inmate incarcerated for a year was over $14,000 (Gaines, 1999).
State courts convicted 872,217 felons during 1995 and one-third of the convictions were for drug offenses. 26% of all convicted felons were sentenced to local jails, usually for less than a year, and 45% were sentenced to state prisons. The remaining 29% were sentenced to probation with no jail or prison time to serve (Currie, 1998).
Felons sentenced to state prison in 1994 were sentenced to an average of about six years but were most likely to serve just two of those six years, under the current release policies (Bender, 1998).
There are many reasons why prisons became so overcrowded between 1985 and 1998. These factors include a 12.3 average annual increase in the number of Hispanic inmates, a 91% rise in admissions, a decline in the annual release rates, and a sharp rise in violent offenders among white inmates therefore keeping them in prisons longer (Jacobs, 1995). A lot of the increases were due to drug convictions. From 1985 to 1992 there was a 33% increase in the number of blacks sent to state prisons for violent offenses compared to a 27% increase in the number of whites. A similar increase in both incarcerated blacks and whites occurred for property crimes. However, for drug crimes, 94% more blacks were sent to prison from 1988 to 1992, while only 35% more whites were incarcerated (Cose, 2000).
The nations courts are sentencing and admitting more offenders into America’s prisons than the facilities can hold. At the beginning of 1995, 39 states were under court order to relieve overcrowding (Currie, 1998).
The way to address overcrowding is to build more prisons and maybe try to rehabilitate these felons a bit more. The 1995 census found that state and federal officials built 213 new prisons – 168 state and federal facilities with more than 280,000 beds between 1990-1995 to keep up with the growing prison population (Jacobs, 1997). In 1995 18 correction agencies opened 70 new institutions, adding 69,921 beds at an average cost of $46,758 (Jacobs, 1997). Some states have trouble building prisons fast enough to meet court orders to correct conditions.
Because building prisons and adding new beds is costly, states are looking for other ways to manage overcrowding, such as early release programs, electronic monitoring, keeping prisoners in local jails, and having offenders pay restitution to their victims. Early release gives officials a way to allow prisoners to leave before their sentence is completed. In New York, “presumptive release” permits the parole board to release offenders on parole after they have served their minimum sentences if they have not caused any problems. Good time or merit time allows the reduction of the sentence time for everyday of good behavior or for participating in particular programs.
Felons were sentenced to an average sentence of 71 months in state prisons in 1994 but actually served about 38 % of that sentence (Bender, 1998). The danger in releasing inmates to make more room for new admissions is that some prisoners are violent offenders and should not be let out yet.
Another way to deal with overcrowded conditions is for the government to save money by allowing private businesses to perform some government functions (privatization). This policy has largely affected the corrections system, especially as state and federal government face an increasing number of prisoners and , as a result, a growing need to build more prisons.
People that are for the privatization of prisons believe that private firms would both improve the quality of services and reduce the costs. A National Institute of Corrections survey in the mid 1980’s found that more than 30 types of services were provided by the private sector (Gaines, 1999). The services most frequently supplied by private enterprise are health services, community treatment centers, facility constructions, educational programs, drug treatment, staff training and counseling.
Much of the growth in the prison population can be attributed to the increase in the number of people sent to prison for drugs. In an effort to control overcrowding petty drug offenders should be given treatment or lighter sentences. When I say petty drug offenders I mean drug users and not drug dealers that are a greater threat to society. Maybe if they get treatment they don’t become repeat offenders. Loading our prisons with non violent drug offenders means that today we are committing more non violent offenders to hard time than we are violent criminals, and there is less room left for violent offenders who should be put away to make society safer.
There is a major question whether prison actually helps these drug users. They can usually find drugs in prison and if not they obtain drugs when they get out. It would be better if drug users were put into mandatory treatment programs on top of doing community services. This would help the situation of prison overcrowding while at the same time help those people who are involved in these treatment programs. There is a major problem when drug addicted people are put into prison and cannot get help they help. Prisoners sentenced for drug offenses made up the single largest group of federal inmates, 60% (Currie, 1998). This is a problem and inmates who are convicted of drug offenses should be made to participate in these programs. Most of these drug treatment programs at federal institutions have been ineffective and poorly run.
In 1995, according to the Criminal Institute, about 13.2% of inmates participated in drug programs (Jacobs, 1995). The New York Times reported that, although 1 in 6 inmates receive some kind of treatment, only about 2 % have the kind of service rehabilitation that changes the inmates behaviors for a lifetime (Jacobs, 1995). Most of the participants end up recidivists. The most effective programs take many months but reduce the re-arrest rate greatly. Drug treatment advocates say that drug treatment programs could be provided for much less than the amount spent to build more prisons.
A lot of average Americans think people in prisons are all hardened criminals. In reality, the prisons are filled wall to wall with drug abusers and mentally ill that need treatment instead of incarceration. They can change with the right help. In stead of building new prisons, the government should spend half that money on treatment programs. These programs would benefit society more than new prisons would.
The third major issue that I would like to talk about deals with the problem of drug trafficking in prisons. It is a major problem when inmates can easily obtain drugs in prison. Many inmates who are constantly in and out of prison, see prison as a vacation from the rough streets. (Cose, 2000). This is because prisoners get three meals a day, free room and board, and are able to purchase drugs. Prisons should be drug free and inmates should not be able to get high.
It is hard to regulate drugs in prisons because in order to do so you would have to search everyone going in, keep all packages out, and lock inmates in their cells for 24 hours a day. With more and more inmates in prison for possessing and dealing drugs there is already a market and it is hard to keep drugs out. There are also too many corrections officers that go to work everyday and do all the drug pushing, making it hard to find the dealers.
To address this problem of drugs availability in prisons more states are staging surprise lock downs and raids to stem the amount of drugs. This has proved to work but it is hard to do all the time because it involves a lot of man power. Another way in which in authorities try to keep drugs out of prisons is to use undercover officers. By using undercover officers in prisons you have an opportunity to get to the main source of the drugs coming in. The only problem with working on the inside to uncover drug trafficking is that it is very dangerous. Both the undercover officers, and surprise raids and lock downs are good way to regulate the amount of drugs in prisons.
These issues that I have discussed are the major problems in the correctional system of the United States. These issues have to be addressed rapidly to better our society as a whole. These problems are not going to go away overnight and we, as voters in a democratic society must elect people that are going to take action and deal with these problems.
Bender, David. Does Capital Punishment Deter Crime
Greenhaven press, CA 1998.
Cose, Ellis. Newsweek-“America’s Prison Generations”.
November 13, 2000
Currie, Elliot. Crime and Punishment in America.
Henry Holt and Company, NY 1998
Gaines, Ann. Prisons.
Chelsea House, Philadelphia 1999.
Jacobs, Nancy. Prisons and Jails: A Deterrent to Crime?
Information Plus, Texas 1995.