For a country that only has 5% of the world’s population, the United States holds the record for the highest incarceration rate in the world. At 2.2 million – 25% of the world’s incarcerated, the United States has created a system where prison is used as both punishment and rehabilitation. But is everyone behind bars a hardened criminal? Or is there an underlying problem where the poverty stricken, uneducated, mentally ill and addicts cannot escape the penal system’s “revolving door”?
To answer this, we need to take a look at what types of individuals make up our staggeringly large penal system. Our nation’s “get tough” approach on crime has created a situation where:
- 64% of prisoners report mental health concerns
- Minorities – largely African Americans (40%), closely followed by Hispanics (20%) make up the majority of the penal population despite both being less than 20% of the US population, respectively.
- Men make up the largest portion of prisoners (90%)
- The average state prisoner has a 10th grade education, and about 70% have not finished high school
- 722,000 in local jails are there because they are either too poor to make bail and are being held before trial
The juvenile justice system, which is supposed to be a means of protection and preventive measures also has:
- 12,000 minors are behind bars for “technical violations” of their probation/parole
- 3,000 minors are behind bars for “status” offenses, ie – running away, truancy, etc.
So how does the United States solve this growing issue? First, the US needs to take a different approach to rehabilitation. It needs to look at alternative methods of handling criminal behavior that have longer lasting effects and prevent recidivism. Some examples are: sending drug users or low level offenders to rehab, medical treatment for the mentally ill, providing high quality education in prisons, usage of probation and positive activities such as community service, and lowering sentences for nonviolent crimes. For those who must enter the penal system, there should be a high attention to the quality of aftercare to help prepare them to reintegrate into society.
In regards to minors in the juvenile justice system, there needs to to be stronger and a large emphasis on education, more positive reinforcement, and the presence of strong role models that these troubled youth may lack in their lives.
Lastly, society needs to be more understanding and open-minded towards the ex-incarcerated. In a tight job market, those who have a criminal background can find it next to impossible to find work. Society needs to realize that the large portion of offenders are nonviolent. In fact, 300,000 individuals are serving sentences about a year or less for minor crimes. Nobody’s life deserves to be defined by a few bad choices, and everyone deserves a second chance.
By Natalee Ajarie