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The Lock ‘Em Up Approach to Sentencing Essay

The approaches used to address the crime problem seen in America are subject to political influences (Travis; Walker). Celebrated cases, such as those of Megan Kanka and Polly Klaas, can put extreme political pressure on legislatures to take extraordinary measures to control or prevent crime (Walker). In addition, the local evening news in most metropolitan areas begins each night with stories on the murders, rapes, and assaults that had occurred in the community. This sets the public perception of the incidence of crime in the community and can likewise lead to political pressures coming to bear on the lawmakers to better control crime.

The responses to these political pressures include a number of approaches, such as putting more police on the streets (Sherman); “unleashing” law enforcement, giving them more freedom and reducing or eliminating the consequences for interfering with individual rights (Walker); increasing deterrence through a swifter criminal justice system, with harsh punishments, and with an increased likelihood of detection, arrest, prosecution and punishment (Walker); closing loopholes that allow criminals to escape punishment or “escape” with limited punishment that is not suited to the crime (Walker); and finally, strong techniques that lock up offenders (the “lock ‘em up” approach) at various stages in the criminal justice process and ensure that the stay locked up (Walker).

The “lock ‘em up” approach is generally considered to encompass three techniques: “preventative detention, incapacitation, and mandatory sentencing” (Walker, pg. 132). On an intuitive level, they are going to have considerable impact on reducing and controlling crime. In actual application, however, they do not. In some instances, they may even have negative impacts in other areas. For example, they can result in racial disparity or they can be unnecessarily harsh by their application. Preventive detention fails on a number of levels.

Because of the prediction problem, we cannot accurately predict which arrested offenders are likely to re-offend prior to trial (Walker). A good percentage of those arrested sit unnecessarily in jail awaiting trial. In addition, the actuality is that only a small percentage (16%) of those arrested for felonies and released on bail commit another crime before trial on the original matter (Walker). Further, it is more likely that a person who is not released on bail is more likely to be convicted and more like to be sentenced to prison than a person able to get out on bail. This has a disproportionate impact on poor, frequently black, offenders (Walker).

Preventative prevention does not provide the desired outcome and can be unfair in application. Incapacitation as a technique also fails and can have a reverse effect. In one study cited by Walker, juvenile arrests for burglary decreased while adult arrests for burglary increased under a strict incapacitation scheme. There is also the problem that as one offender is arrested, someone new comes along to that person’s place. Other research has indicated “no clear link between incarceration and crime rates” (Walker, pg. 145). Incapacitation, therefore, while good for public perception that something is being done, really cannot address the crime problem.

Finally, mandatory sentencing has proven ineffective. The courtroom work group frequently ignores the mandatory sentencing requirements (Walker). The use of such programs has quickly resulted in prison overcrowding, in turn resulting early release programs that eliminate or reduce the efficacy of the mandatory sentencing programs. The “lock ‘em up” approach, as it currently exists cannot adequately meet the ideal of reducing and controlling crime. Because there is such an intuitive nature to the techniques, it does seem possible that under the right circumstances, these techniques may have the desired impact; but for now, they just don’t work.

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