An outdated and unfair criminal justice system continues resulting in devastating consequences for crime prevention, rehabilitation, and fair justice in the U.S.
The United States has almost 7 million people under correctional control, making it the world leader in incarceration. Out of those, about 2.2 million are serving sentences, and the rest are either on probation, parole, or under community surveillance. It is estimated that 100 million have a criminal record.
Criminal justice reform has become a necessity since most incarcerations are not caused by increasing crime rates, but by the persistence of adhering to extremely punitive policies and sentencing laws.
One of the biggest consequences of the current criminal justice system is the impact it has on minority communities – with whole generations condemned to a vicious cycle of incarcerations. It also aggravates social economic and racial inequalities. These lead to relapses, unemployment, and other social handicaps – with no real evidence that it prevents crime.
COVID-19 has also highlighted the inefficiencies of a system that relies on incarcerations. In a study conducted by Time magazine, it was found that 39% of people in prison did not pose a threat to public safety, and their release could save the country $20 billion annually. Of these, 25% are lower-level, non-violent offenders who could benefit from alternative types of reforms, and 14% have already served long sentences for serious crimes and could safely be released.
These are the 5 biggest problems the outdated U.S. criminal system faces today:
1. Law enforcement and policing
Sending armed officers in uniforms to respond to 911 calls often leads to situations like the one that led to the death of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta in mid-2020. It is estimated that 80% of nationwide calls to 911 are not made because of violent or property-related offenses. That indicated it should not be the police responding to them. Additionally, many people, particularly from minority groups, do not make calls to emergency services because they are scared that the responders will be police officers. The system needs reforming to ensure the right responders are sent out to deal with each specific situation, especially with drug-related and psychological distress situations.
2. The 1994 Crime Bill
The 1994 Crime Bill not only increased the number and length of incarcerations, but more funding went into building jails and prisons. Also, the possibility of early release was reduced. These measures increased the amount of taxpayers’ money invested in enforcement and led to a disproportionate number of incarcerations among African-American men. Its effect on public safety was minimal.
3. Mandatory minimum sentencing
Mandatory minimum sentencing is the minimum sentence a court can give for a specific crime, even if there are unique circumstances. Unfortunately, even though more than half of federal inmates are incarcerated under these mandatory provisions, there is no correlated increase in public safety.
Prosecutors often have incentives to send people to prison, and they can pick the charges they want to send someone to prison for. Rachel Barkow, author of “Prisoners of Politics: Breaking the Cycle of Mass Incarceration”, is quoted from an interview to CBS News: “Instead of having a judge decide what the sentence should be, prosecutors can make that decision. That is really problematic because the judge is at least an objective third party with no stake in the outcome. The prosecutor, however, can threaten people with mandatory minimums to get them to plead guilty.”
4. Poverty continues inhibiting prevention and recidivism
Some of the issues contributing to the high number of incarcerations include drug use and mental health. The money set aside for policing and detentions could be better spent on community prevention and treatment programs.
Recidivism can also be reduced if the federal Pell Grants were restored to inmates. These grants allowed federal education support and financial aid to help rehabilitate those incarcerated and giving them a second chance.
Additionally, the system requiring people to pay cash bail adds to the problem. It is estimated that 3 out of 5 people in jail have not been convicted for a crime, but are too poor to meet the bail set by the court.
5. Handling of juveniles
Juveniles are often tried as adults in the criminal justice system, and they are not given parole eligibility. Also, policing of neighborhoods and schools often criminalizes minor offenses and contributes to unnecessary violence. This leads to a stigma or psychological trauma that can lead to increased criminal activities.
Addressing these challenges needs concerted efforts across the whole criminal justice system if the number of incarcerations is to be reduced and crime numbers kept low.